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Chargers 33, Steelers 30: Steelers struggling while other AFC teams are on the rise

Another week, another team that looks like it has a better chance than the Steelers to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Remember a month or so ago when the Patriots and Chiefs seemed to be the main hurdles between the Steelers and Super Bowl LIII?

Those were simpler times.

Now the Chargers have stamped themselves as legitimate contenders after beating the Steelers 33-30 Sunday night at Heinz Field.

This comes a week after the Steelers (7-4-1) lost to the Broncos, another rising power in the conference.

And let’s not forget about the Texans (9-3), who have won nine straight.

The pack has caught up with the Steelers, who are only a half game ahead of the rejuvenated Ravens (7-5) in the AFC North. The Steelers have lost two in a row, their first losing streak since the four-game skid that nearly sank their season in 2016.

Yeah, the Steelers got screwed by the officials Sunday night.

A false start wasn’t called on Philip Rivers‘ 46-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin that put the Chargers on the board and made it 13-7 in the first quarter.

A block in the back wasn’t called on Desmond King‘s 73-yard punt return for a touchdown that set up the game-tying 2-point conversion with 12:52 left in the game.

And it’s debatable whether Joe Haden was really offside on the 39-yard field goal attempt that Chargers kicker Michael Badgley missed in the final seconds. If Haden did get an early jump, it at least wasn’t as blatant as the two Artie Burns infractions on the second and third chances that Badgley was given to win the game. Any more penalties and he would have been kicking it from the seats behind the goal post. Badgley ultimately won it on a 29-yarder to end a ridiculous sequence that poured salt in the wound of a historic Steelers collapse.

The Steelers blew a 23-7 halftime lead. It was the first time they had ever lost a game at home in which they led by 14 or more points. As bad as the officiating was, however, there’s also a sense that the Steelers had their foot on the Chargers’ throat but couldn’t finish the job. They led 13-0 after James Conner scored from a yard out on their first two possessions.

This game had the feel of the Steelers’ last prime-time affair, when they clobbered the Panthers 52-21 on Thursday night in Week 10. The stock is down significantly on that win, by the way, as it was the first of the Panthers’ four straight losses.

The Chargers’ most impressive victory heading into Sunday was a win at Seattle in Week 9, and the shine on that win has brightened in light of the Seahawks’ three-game winning streak.

Benjamin’s gifted touchdown gave the Chargers (9-3) life Sunday, but the Steelers were moving the ball again on their third possession until Roethlisberger was picked off by rookie sensation Derwin James at the Chargers’ 8-yard line. It was Roethlisberger’s 13th interception and he’s in danger of throwing more interceptions than he has in any season since throwing a career-high 23 in 2006.

Roethlisberger also overthrew Justin Hunter twice in the first half. The second of those passes was thrown into the end zone, costing the Steelers four points as they had to settle for a field goal after blocking a punt. How many people are screaming about the officials if Roethlisberger had connected with Hunter?

While there was that one special teams splash play, the Steelers again failed to force a turnover and they’ve taken the ball away just four times in the last seven games. The ball was up for grabs a couple of times on one Chargers drive in the third quarter. Joe Haden had an interception in the end zone until teammate Sean Davis intervened, running into Haden and knocking the ball loose. Keenan Allen came down with the ball and a touchdown that narrowed the Steelers’ lead to 23-15 after the two-point conversion.

As incompetent as the officials were in this game, Mike Tomlin made a move that was nearly as inept when he challenged a spot with just over five minutes left in the game. At least a couple of years ago, Tomlin was miked up on the NFL Network and could be heard telling an official that he’s never seen anyone win a spot challenge.

Maybe this wasn’t the best time for Tomlin to see if he could be the first.

The Steelers really could have used that blown timeout in the final minute to prevent the Chargers from running the clock all the way down before attempting the game-winning field goal.

Part of the reason the Chargers rallied in the second half was their ground game. After running for just three yards in the first half, they gained 83 on 13 carries, 6.4 yards per carry, in the second half. Stephon Tuitt was back Sunday, so maybe the Steelers’ inability to stop the run over the last three games goes beyond Tuitt’s two-game absence.

The Steelers will have trouble moving the ball on the ground if Conner misses any time. He left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter and according to NFL.com, Conner has a lower-leg contusion. He led the team with 201 rushing attempts this season before going down Sunday.

Guess who has the second-most rushing attempts on the team. It’s Roethlisberger with 24. This carry distribution puts the Steelers in a position where an injury to one player can wreck their championship hopes. It happened when Le’Veon Bell couldn’t finish the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons healthy.

Let’s face it. There’s a lot the Steelers can learn from the Patriots. Among them is running back usage. Sony Michel leads the team with 144 carries this season and James White is second with 76. Last season, Dion Lewis had 180 carries. Mike Gillislee had 104. Rex Burkhead had 64 and White had 43.

Running backs have a short shelf life in the NFL. By mixing and matching their backs according to each week’s game plan, the Patriots see to it that no one back absorbs all the injury risk that comes with that position.

While Conner has the talent to be a workhorse running back, his body might not be able to handle it. He suffered a season-ending knee injury as Bell’s backup last season and who knows when he’ll return from this injury.

Right after Conner left the game, Jaylen Samuels caught a 10-yard touchdown pass to tie the game. Perhaps with Samuels the Steelers are better equipped to absorb Conner’s absence than they were Bell’s absence in 2016.

But that remains to be seen. The Chargers, on the other hand, proved they can handle the absence of their lead back because they won Sunday without Melvin Gordon. Jackson carried the ball eight times for 63 yards and a touchdown and Austin Ekeler added 21 yards on 13 carries and five receptions for 22 yards.

Those aforementioned Patriots running backs will visit Heinz Field in two weeks. Before that, however, the Steelers visit Oakland on Sunday. This has “trap game” written all over it. The Steelers can’t overlook the Raiders (2-10), because trying to catch the Patriots (9-3) should be the last thing on their mind right now.

If anything, the Steelers need to look behind them, not ahead, because they’ll be fighting for a wild-card spot if they don’t start winning some games.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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