The Pittsburgh Steelers are like a guy who eats at Primanti Bros. every day but doesn’t gain weight.
Despite losing four of their last five games, including Sunday’s 27-24 overtime defeat in Dallas, the Steelers (7-7) still will be in excellent shape for a playoff berth if they beat the Bengals and Browns in their final two games.
With those last two games at home, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Steelers players to get a head start cleaning out their lockers. If their 2012 season doesn’t end after they play the Browns Dec. 30, it will end in early January.
Usually during this time of year, the Steelers are jockeying for a first-round playoff bye. The most recent exception is 2009, when they missed the playoffs after falling apart at midseason.
Not since 2007 have the Steelers looked like this. That year, Willie Parker went down with an injury and the Steelers lost three of their last four before falling to the Jaguars in the first round of the playoffs.
The 2012 Steelers have a lot more work to do to get into the playoffs than the 2007 edition, but the mood is the same. They’re a dead team walking whether they get into the playoffs or not.
This year Ike Taylor has suffered the injury that could be catastrophic to the Steelers’ championship hopes. Unlike Parker in 2007, Taylor could be back. It might be hard envisioning him in uniform against Bengals, though, since he still wore a walking boot on the sidelines Sunday in Dallas.
Having Taylor back would enhance the Steelers’ playoff hopes, but if they miss the playoffs or make an early exit in the playoffs, it won’t be because of Taylor’s injury.
It will be because they’re a mediocre football team.
If Antonio Brown had just held onto the ball when he returned a punt with a little over 10 minutes left in Sunday’s game, the Steelers might have been in a position to clinch a playoff spot next week.
The Steelers led 24-17 and could have milked the clock. But Victor Butler poked the ball loose, John Phillips recovered at the Steelers’ 38 and the Cowboys (8-6) scored the game-tying touchdown.
It was the second time this season that Brown fumbled in the fourth quarter of a Steelers loss when they were trying to protect the lead.
The Steelers’ Most Valuable Player last season, Brown has been emblematic of the Steelers’ puzzling play this season with his miscues.
Early in Sunday’s game, Brown and the Steelers looked just as sluggish as they did against the Chargers (who by the way lost 31-7 at home to the 5-9 Panthers, as if the Steelers’ loss to San Diego couldn’t look any worse).
On the first drive, Brown bobbled a simple screen pass that fell incomplete. On the next play, Emmanuel Sanders caught a Ben Roethlisberger pass for 26 yards, but the Cowboys’ Eric Frampton stripped the ball. The play originally was ruled a fumble, but changed to an incomplete pass. Even if it wasn’t officially a fumble, it was another example of the Steelers’ inability to hang onto footballs this season.
Sanders also fumbled in the open field after catching a pass in Baltimore. While that drop didn’t cost the Steelers the game, Sanders was one of five Steelers to lose a fumble the previous week in their loss at Cleveland.
There’s something wrong with a team that fumbles the ball that much.
Just like you can tell everything about a man from the way he treats his mother, you can tell everything about a football team from the way it handles the football.
That goes for the Steelers’ defense, too. For the 11th time this season, the Steelers forced one turnover or less. Good football teams turn games in their favor by taking the ball away.
The Steelers’ lone takeaway, a fumble forced by James Harrison and recovered by Brett Keisel, came deep in Steelers’ territory and might have saved the Steelers from being blown out by halftime.
The Cowboys took a 10-0 lead before the Steelers started playing like a team that doesn’t want its season to be over by New Year’s Eve.
Roethlisberger showed that he’s shaken off the rust when he weaved his way around the pass rush and threw a vintage schoolyard touchdown pass to Heath Miller to tie the score 10-10 at halftime.
In the third quarter, Roethlisberger answered a Cowboys touchdown by reaching back into 2011 and throwing a 60-yard home run ball to Mike Wallace. That set up Jonathan Dwyer’s 1-yard touchdown run that tied the game 17-17.
Roethlisberger and Wallace later connected on a 20-yard pass late in the third quarter that keyed their go-ahead touchdown drive. It came on a crossing pattern reminiscent of Wallace’s touchdown in the Steelers’ win over the Giants, kindling hopes that perhaps the Steelers were regaining that midseason form that produced four straight wins.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, their offensive line doesn’t have the stability it had in October and early November.
After the Cowboys turned Brown’s fumble into the game-tying touchdown with 6:55 left, the Steelers had two chances to work the clock for the winning points and not let the Cowboys see the ball again. But the offensive line, with rookies David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum on the right side, yielded three of the Cowboys’ four sacks in the final four minutes, killing drives before the Steelers could get into field-goal range.
Then in overtime, the Steelers saw another snapshot from their halcyon days of autumn, but this one came in photo-negative form. Brandon Carr intercepted Roethlisberger in the first minute of overtime to set up the game-winning field goal, just like Lawrence Timmons did against the Chiefs.
What goes around comes around.
With all their championship mettle, perhaps the Steelers would be a dangerous team in the playoffs.
Right now, though, they’re a danger only to themselves.