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Pittsburgh Steelers Struggled Against Bad Teams Even When They Were Good

Are you tired of the Steelers losing to teams that have nothing to play for but high draft picks?

Are you nostalgic for the days when the Steelers used to crush weak opponents like aluminum cans ready for the recycling bin?

Since Mike Tomlin became the Steelers head coach in 2007, the Steelers have lost seven games to teams that finished that season with a 5-11 record or worse.

That number is likely to swell by at least one this season, assuming either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or New York Jets finish no better than 5-11.

As frustrating as these pratfalls have been in recent years, it could have been worse. The Steelers’ last two playoff teams came perilously close to two of these bad losses.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’re specifically referring to games in which the Steelers lost to a team that finished 5-11 or worse.

In only three of Tomlin’s first seven seasons did the Steelers avoid losing one of these games. Not coincidentally, those were the three seasons that the Steelers went 12-4 under Tomlin: 2008, 2010 and 2011.

The 2008 Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII. The 2010 Steelers reached Super Bowl XLV and lost. The 2011 Steelers lost in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that as the quality of these 12-4 teams diminished, the more difficulty the Steelers had defeating inferior opponents.

The closest the 2008 Steelers came to one of these losses was a 26-21 win at 5-11 Jacksonville. Ben Roethlisberger threw the winning touchdown pass with two minutes left, and the Jaguars didn’t get past their own 33 on their last possession.

The 2010 Steelers, however, nearly lost to two 4-12 teams.

They clung to a six-point lead with Carson Palmer and the Bengals driving at Cincinnati. Palmer threw a 20-yard pass to Terrell Owens with just over a minute left. Troy Polamalu, the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, just happened to be in the right place at the right time and brick-walled Owens at the Steelers’ 17. Had Polamalu not stopped him, Owens probably would have scored the game-tying touchdown. The Steelers held on to win that Monday-night game 27-21 in Week 9.

The Steelers needed overtime to beat the Buffalo Bills 19-16 three weeks later. Bills receiver Steve Johnson dropped the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime. It also helped that Leodis McKelvin fumbled a punt 15 yards backwards in the extra session. Shaun Suisham kicked the game-winning, 41-yard field goal in his first game as a Steeler.

So if Polamalu wasn’t occupying that exact spot on the field in Cincinnati and if Johnson hadn’t dropped that Ryan Fitzpatrick pass in the end zone at Buffalo, the Steelers probably wouldn’t have reached the Super Bowl.

Instead of finishing 12-4, earning the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye, the Steelers would have been 10-6 and the No. 6 seed. They’d have had to beat Peyton Manning at Indianapolis and Tom Brady at New England just to reach the AFC championship game.

In 2011, the Steelers’ victories at home over 5-11 Jacksonville and at 4-12 Cleveland weren’t secure until Hail Marys fell incomplete in the final seconds. Had they lost both of those games, they still would have been the No. 5 seed and encountered Tim Tebow in the playoffs. But their inability to make quick work of the Jaguars and Browns is evidence of just how hollow their 12-4 mark was that year.

Since 2012, the Steelers no longer have been able to escape these embarrassing defeats and they’ve no longer been able to make the playoffs. They lost 34-31 at 4-12 Oakland and 20-14 at 5-11 Cleveland in 2012 and eventually finished 8-8.

In 2013, Suisham missed field-goal attempts of 32 and 34 yards in a 21-18 loss at 4-12 Oakland. That loss was part of the Steelers’ second straight 8-8 season. In the same way that two plays demonstrated the razor-thin difference between the Super Bowl and an early playoff exit in 2010, the Steelers are a playoff team last season if Suisham makes those two routine field goals at Oakland and there’s not as much of an outcry over the Steelers’ struggles against the NFL’s bottom feeders.

Maybe the mystery behind these confounding losses is that the 2010 and 2011 Steelers had more luck in these games than they have now. Sure, the 2010 Steelers made their own luck by forcing 35 turnovers. But in 2011 they forced only 15 and still went 12-4.

Perhaps the Steelers are caught in the NFL’s parity vortex. In this Any Given Sunday league, the talent differential between the best and the worst team is narrower than it is in any other sport.

Both the Steelers (6-4) and the Tennessee Titans (2-7) will be caught in the polar vortex Monday night. The temperature at LP Field in Nashville could be as low as 17 degrees, according to NFLWeather.com.

The Steelers are 2-8 at Tennessee since the franchise moved there in 1997. It’s their worst road record against any current AFC opponent.

Not exactly the ideal setting for the Steelers to kick their habit of losing to lowly teams.

But they haven’t lost all their games to bad teams this year. They won 17-9 at Jacksonville, even though they needed touchdowns from journeymen Michael Palmer and Brice McCain to do it.

Don’t expect a victory to be any easier Monday night. But as we have seen, beating bad teams wasn’t easy for the Steelers when Polamalu was in his prime and they were regularly going to the playoffs.

The good old days weren’t as good as they seem.

 Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

 

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