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Bills 17, Steelers 10: Steelers can’t beat playoff-caliber teams

If any Steelers players woke up Monday morning with a bump on their head, it’s from the impact of hitting the ceiling.

That ceiling represents Devlin Hodges‘ ability as a quarterback as well as the limits of how far the Steelers can go in 2019.

Hodges threw four interceptions, including two in the end zone in the final two minutes, in the Steelers’ 17-10 loss to the Bills Sunday night at Heinz Field.

In a lot of ways this has been a storybook season for the Steelers, with a quarterback who was on his couch in Week 1 leading them to the cusp of the playoffs. The Steelers still will make the playoffs if they win their two remaining games, but on Sunday night we were faced with a reality that we brushed aside while reveling in Duckmania.

Without Ben Roethlisberger,  this season is almost certain to end well short of the Super Bowl.

The Bills (10-4), who clinched a playoff spot with the win, are the first playoff-bound team the Steelers have faced since they lost to the Ravens in Week 5. The Rams, Colts and Browns are the only teams the Steelers have beaten that still have a chance to make the playoffs.

If the Steelers (8-6) beat the Jets (5-9) on the road next week, they’ll have accomplished something that they rarely have in recent years. They’ll have gone a full season without slipping up against lowly teams. That’s nice. The problem is the Steelers won’t get to face the Browns, Bengals and Cardinals if they make the playoffs. They’re 0-5 against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended after Week 15.

Technically, the Steelers would have a shot at beating one of those teams in Week 17 if the Ravens win at Cleveland next week. That would clinch the No. 1 seed for the Ravens and give them a chance to rest Lamar Jackson and other starters in Week 17. Steelers fans are just going to have to hold their noses and root for the Ravens next week.

Sunday’s loss takes the No. 5 seed off the table for the Steelers. That means if they reach the postseason, they’ll be the sixth seed and will probably face the third-seeded Chiefs or Patriots on the road in the wild-card round. The No. 5 seed is shaping up as a ticket to No. 4 Houston if the Texans can hang on in the AFC South. Facing Deshaun Watson is no picnic, but it’s not as scary as Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady, who unlike Watson have won playoff games.

The Steelers really could have used the No. 5 seed, but they pretty much handed the Bills 10 points with a 22-yard punt in the first quarter and Hodges’ third interception, the second in the game by ballhawk cornerback Tre’Davious White, in the third quarter.

The shanked punt set up the Bills at the Steelers’ 40 and led to Josh Allen‘s 1-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 Bills lead. The second was returned to the Steelers’ 18 by White, who is tied for the league lead with six interceptions. Steelers right tackle Matt Feiler pushed White out of bounds and saved the touchdown, but the Bills did tie the score 10-10 early in the fourth quarter on Steven Hauschka’s 36-yard field goal.

Buffalo’s winning drive was sparked by a 40-yard pass from Allen to John Brown, who burned Steelers cornerback Steven Nelson like chestnuts over an open fire all night. Nelson had his first interception of the season, but also was primarily responsible for covering Brown, who caught seven passes for 99 yards.

Tyler Kroft caught Allen’s go-ahead, 14-yard touchdown pass to give the Bills a 17-10 lead with 7:55 left in the game.

That’s the latest that Hodges has trailed in a game, and he’s got some work to do to earn his fourth-quarter comeback badge. He had three chances to tie the game, but those last three possessions resulted in a three-and-out and two interceptions. Safety Jordan Poyer made the first pick with the Steelers at the Bills’ 23 just after the two-minute warning. Levi Wallace secured the victory for the Bills by intercepting Hodges in the end zone with the Steelers at the 34.

The last interception, with six seconds left, came on a rushed play after a sack. The Steelers had no timeouts left because Hodges burned one with 3:10 remaining.

Perhaps we’re seeing why Hodges was not only undrafted, but not even signed during the wave of undrafted free agent signings in the spring. On the other hand, this was his toughest test. The Bills’ defense ranks third in the league and also third against the pass.

So far, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has shown the right touch with the quarterback situation. He knew just the right time to call on Hodges in Week 12 at Cincinnati.

Does he have to make one more move at some point to give the Steelers one last push to get into the playoffs?

Hodges deserves a chance to shake off this bad performance and start next week against the Jets. His quarterback rating, according to Pro Football Reference, was 43.9. Roethlisberger has posted lower ratings nine times in his career.

If the duck really has turned into a pumpkin, the Steelers’ only hope is that Mason Rudolph‘s benching was a wake-up call and he can come back and be a competent NFL starter.

The only other lottery ticket is Paxton Lynch, who the Steelers signed in Week 2. He carries the bust label after being drafted in the first round by the Broncos in 2016 and making just four starts in two years. He hasn’t played in a game since 2017, but maybe the Steelers want to roll the dice on draft pedigree. Their current starting quarterback is undrafted. His backup is a third-round pick and a guy who doesn’t dress on Sundays is a first-round pick.

Whatever the answer, that quarterback won’t be named Roethlisberger, and that’s why we should just enjoy whatever is left of the Steelers season without expecting a championship.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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3 comments

  1. Bob rush

    Excellent article. I was hoping to go back to Rudolph this week (not that it will necessarily help much) but Tomlin will wait until Hodges throws two wounded duck interceptions and we are down 10-0 to the Jets.

  2. Mike Batista

    Well, they thought Rudolph was Roethlisberger’s eventual successor, so instead of using next year’s first-round pick to trade for a QB they used it to trade for a safety.

  3. don starrett

    The whole problem here is Mike Tomlin did not get on the phone right away after Ben’s injury looking for an experienced NFL quarterback. Why don’t the Steelers know football history? You are not going to make a legitimate run at the play-offs with this next man up mentality especially at the quarterback position with inexperienced players! Look at what happened when Drew Brees got hurt,the Saints had Teddy Bridgewater and didn’t lose a step!you have a good back-up and a rookie…end of story and unfortunately the end of the Steelers this year!

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