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Raiders 24, Steelers 21: Steelers’ playoff chances slipping away

The Steelers had it made on Sunday.

The Ravens lost, giving the Steelers an opportunity to increase their AFC North lead to a game and a half.

The Texans lost. The Patriots suffered a crushing loss to the Dolphins on a last-second lateral that turned into a game-winning touchdown. Those losses made the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye reachable for the Steelers once again.

The Steelers were golden. They bought Gillian Jacobs a few drinks at the bar and had her twirling her hair, touching their arm and laughing at all their jokes. All they had to do was say “Let’s get out of here,” and they’d be hooked up.

Instead, they picked their nose.

All the Steelers had to do Sunday to take advantage of their good fortune was beat a 2-10 Raiders team in Oakland.

Instead, they lost 24-21.

They blew it.

Now the Steelers (7-5-1) are just a half-game ahead of the Ravens (7-6) in the division.

The Steelers’ remaining games are at home against the Patriots, at New Orleans and at home against the Bengals.

The Ravens are home against the Buccaneers, at the Chargers and at home against Cleveland.

It’s not hard to imagine the Steelers winning just one more game and the Ravens going 2-1 and winning the division, leaving the Steelers in a Black Friday-like scrum with the Titans, Dolphins and Colts (all 7-6) for the No. 6 seed.

If the Steelers don’t get James Conner back from a sprained-ankle injury, they’re one-and-done even if they do make the playoffs. While rookie Jaylen Samuels caught seven passes for 64 yards Sunday, he ran for just 28 yards on 11 carries (2.5 yards per carry). He’s basically a tight end, only carrying the ball 178 times in four years at North Carolina State.

Stevan Ridley scored on a 2-yard touchdown run, but he gained just four yards on five carries. As a team, the Steelers averaged just 2.1 yards a carry.

But Conner’s absence doesn’t excuse the Steelers. Nor does Ben Roethlisberger‘s absence for the third quarter and most of the fourth quarter because of a rib injury.

The Steelers couldn’t beat a Raiders team that was beating itself.

The Raiders committed 13 penalties for 130 yards, while the Steelers were flagged just twice for 14 yards. Going back to 1940, it’s the first time a team has lost a game with that much of a penalty-yardage discrepancy in their favor, according to Pro Football Reference.

It’s only the eighth time a team has lost a game committing two or fewer penalties against an opponent committing 13 or more. The Steelers were the winning team the last time it happened, beating the Chargers 11-10 in 2008 despite 13 penalties to the Chargers’ two. The 1978 Steelers overcame a 13-penalty game to beat the 49ers, who had just one penalty for five yards.

Those two Steelers teams won Super Bowls and had the talent to compensate for their mistakes in those games.

The 2018 Steelers don’t have the talent to capitalize on the mistakes of one of the worst teams in the NFL.

The conversation is much different if Chris Boswell would have just made a 39-yard field goal in the second quarter and a 40-yard field goal in the closing seconds. But he missed the 39-yarder and the other one was blocked when he lost his footing on a slippery field. Boswell had made just 71 percent (10-for-14) of his field-goal attempts entering Sunday’s game, 34th in the league. He also was 36th with 89 percent of his extra points made, although he made all three Sunday.

Maybe Le’Veon Bell wasn’t the greediest Steeler of 2018 after all. Maybe Boswell has been spoiled by his raise from a $615,000 salary last year to $8 million (including signing and roster bonuses, per Spotrac) this year.

Boswell was a Pro Bowler last year, making 92.5 percent of his field goals. Three of his field goals won games in the closing seconds and another decided a game in the final minute. Without Boswell, the 2017 Steelers could have been 9-7 instead of 13-3.

And maybe that’s just it. Maybe that was an artificial 13-3. Maybe the truth was closer to 9-7, but Boswell’s game-winning kicks had us believing the Steelers were Super Bowl contenders, a presumption that spilled into this season.

This is not a championship defense. The Steelers allowed Derek Carrier and Lee Smith, with six career touchdown receptions between them, to catch touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.

It’s funny that the latter has the same name as the pitcher with more career saves than anyone not named Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman.

If this were baseball, the Steelers defense would be charged with another blown save. For the first time since at least 1940, the Steelers have squandered a second-half lead in three straight games, according to PFR. They’ve also blown two straight fourth-quarter leads for the first time since 2009.

That bitter taste of vintage 2009 is unnerving.

One of Mike Tomlin’s signatures has been teams that finish the season strong, bouncing back from midseason struggles in some cases. But that 2009 edition was one of the rare Tomlin-coached squads that foundered late in the season, losing five straight after a 6-2 start and missing the playoffs at 9-7.

That’s the direction this team is going.

And here come the Patriots to Pittsburgh. This year’s showdown against the hated Patriots (9-4) doesn’t seem to have the buzz that it did last year. Part of the reason for that is that Tomlin hasn’t set the stage by talking about the game weeks in advance like he did in an interview with Tony Dungy last year, when he infamously said “we should win it all.”

Keeping their mouths shut is one of the few things the Steelers are doing better this year than last year.

Another reason next week’s matchup doesn’t quite have the marquee value of most Patriots-Steelers games is that both teams are staggering into the game.

The Patriots lost at Miami in unforgettable fashion. They led the Dolphins 33-28 with 16 seconds left when Ryan Tannehill completed a pass to Kenny Stills from the Dolphins’ 31. Stills lateraled to DeVante Parker, who lateraled to Kenyan Drake, who finished the miracle play by running 52 yards for the touchdown, past a stumbling Rob Gronkowski near the goal line.

With the Chiefs improving to 11-2, a first-round bye is no slam dunk for the Patriots. They’re tied with the Texans for the No. 2 seed.

But the Patriots aren’t in nearly as much trouble as the Steelers right now.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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