Bills 26, Steelers 15: Steelers free-falling their way to playoffs

Believe it or not, the Steelers got some good news on Sunday.

The Chiefs’ victory over the Dolphins guaranteed the Steelers a playoff berth.

Thanks, Chiefs. You guys are just swell.

It’s hard to look forward to the playoffs when the Steelers are breaking down like an old, beat-up car.

The disintegration continued Sunday night as Steelers fell 26-15 to the Bills.

Less than two months ago, this looked like possibly the best Steelers team in the history of the franchise not coached by Chuck Noll. Now, it’s a team that has “one and done in the playoffs” written all over it.

And that one playoff game the Steelers play is probably going to be a wild-card game. They can pretty much kiss that free pass into the divisional round good-bye. The Chiefs weren’t completely magnanimous in helping the Steelers. They also improved to 12-1 and moved into the top seed in the AFC with that win. According to PlayoffStatus.com, the Steelers have just a 3 percent chance of earning the top seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.

Sure, the Bills (10-3) would have provided a stern test for the Steelers (11-2) even if the Steelers were running at full steam. But not since Week 7 have the Steelers beaten a team that would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Even then, it took a missed field goal for the Steelers to escape Tennessee with a 27-24 win on Oct. 25.

The Steelers’ next two wins, at Baltimore and at Dallas, came down to Minkah Fitzpatrick turning into Marc-Andre Fleury breaking up last-second passes at the goal line. 

The unbeaten train kept rolling with convincing wins over the Bengals and Jaguars, teams with the third- and second-worst records in the league, respectively.

Then came the warning bell.

We shouldn’t have written off to COVID craziness the Steelers’ underwhelming win over a bunch of Ravens’ understudies. The Steelers in their current state are just good enough to beat a pandemic-stricken team, not quite good enough to beat a Washington Football Team that’s on the rise and nowhere near good enough to beat a Bills team that might have something to say about who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Injuries have a lot to do with the Steelers’ slow slide to mediocrity. The best football the Steelers played this season might have come when they beat the Browns 38-7 at Heinz Field in Week 6. But their tire ran over a nail when they lost Devin Bush for the season. Then they lost Bud Dupree to a torn ACL in Week 12. Then they lost Robert Spillane last week. And Joe Haden and Vince Williams were out Sunday. Spillane could be back in Week 17. Haden needs to pass through the concussion protocol and Williams has to kick COVID-19.

This undermanned defense propped the Steelers up as long as it could Sunday. Mike Hilton forced a fumble and Cameron Sutton recovered at the Bills’ 30 to set up Ben Roethlisberger‘s 19-yard touchdown pass to James Washington and a 7-0 Steelers lead.

The defense held the Bills to three points in the first half. It wasn’t responsible for the points that gave the Bills the lead for good. Taron Johnson intercepted Roethlisberger and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown and a 9-7 halftime lead for the Bills.

That was one of two interceptions that Roethlisberger threw. He’s thrown interceptions in four straight games for the first time since the last four games of the 2015 regular season, according to Pro Football Reference. Meanwhile, the running backs keep hitting brick walls. The Steelers ran for just 47 yards on 14 carries, 2.8 yards per carry. James Conner gained just 18 yards on 10 carries.

Steelers offensive linemen aren’t getting their hands dirty anymore opening holes for running backs. They’ve turned into bodyguards keeping pass rushers away from Roethlisberger, and even that security was breached Sunday when Roethlisberger was sacked for the first time in five games, the longest streak of his career.

It doesn’t help that the injury bug has spread to the offensive line. Starter Matt Feiler and promising backup Kevin Dotson both have pectoral injuries, according to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, and could miss some time. Get the Tylenol ready for the sight of J.C. Hassenauer

With so little help from the offense, the Steelers defense could only shut down Stefon Diggs, the league leader in receptions with 100, for so long. Diggs caught 10 passes for 130 yards and a 19-yard touchdown that extended the Bills’ lead to 16-7 in the third quarter.

The Steelers faced their biggest deficit of the season, 23-7, before Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 81 yards in 10 plays and threw a three-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a two-point conversion to Eric Ebron to pull to Steelers to within 23-15.

Any momentum the Steelers gathered was short-lived, however. They let the Bills off the hook on a third-and-10 from their own 47 on the next drive. The Bills faced another third down on the Steelers’ 36, and Hilton interfered with tight end Dawson Knox at the goal line on a pass that Knox probably would have caught for a touchdown. Tyler Bass kicked a 23-yard field goal to make it 26-15, and the Steelers never touched the ball again after Roethlisberger misfired on yet another deep pass that Levi Wallace intercepted with 7:17 left in the game.

Just as the Steelers have gone from championship contenders in the fall to just another team, Roethlisberger has gone from having the best season of his career at age 38 to just another guy. It seems all he can do now is dink and dunk.

Maybe it will help that Diontae Johnson‘s hands seem to work again after his benching Sunday. After two early drops, he sat out the rest of the first half and finished with four catches for 40 yards in the game. Chase Claypool needs to figure out a way to get open again. Any remote chance he had of being voted Offensive Rookie of the Year has faded away after just five receptions in the last two games. He’s gone three straight games without a touchdown, the longest drought of his young career.

Will a visit to the 2-10 Bengals next Monday night provide Roethlisberger and his receivers enough margin for error to get their act together and lighten the burden on a defense that hopefully will get back Haden, Williams and eventually Spillane?

We can forget about the Steelers running their way out of this slump. It’s on the shoulders of Roethlisberger, the receivers and the defense.

The Steelers better hope that Cincinnati is a landing spot for this freefall, because the Colts visit Pittsburgh in Week 16 and there’s nothing more vexing than the sight of Philip Rivers hooting and hollering and trash-talking his way around Heinz Field.

Then in Week 17, the AFC North title might be on the line when the Steelers go to Cleveland.

The good news is the Steelers are in the playoffs whether they fix their problems or not.

The bad news is the Steelers are in the playoffs whether they fix their problems or not.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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