Lawrence: Impending Doom

The Steelers missing the playoffs would be an "unmitigated disaster," Amy Lawrence says, and "the worst failure in the NFL"

Amy Lawrence
December 28, 2018 - 9:32 am

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How did this happen? Seriously, how did the Pittsburgh Steelers end up where they are now?? From first place in the AFC North and a streak-busting victory over the Patriots to the verge of missing the playoffs? It may be the most stunning turn of events this NFL season. It's also a sobering reminder that every game counts, and success can't be taken for granted.

The Week 16 defeat at the hands of the Saints in the Superdome was the most recent blow for the Steelers and the one that officially cost them the division lead. But their demise can be traced back to a three-game losing skid inside the AFC West. Sure, they had chances to win in New Orleans until a pair of fourth-quarter fumbles derailed their efforts. But falling to the team with the league's best record in hostile territory isn't shameful. The problem is the Steelers squandered any wiggle room with a series of missteps versus the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders. If they end up missing the postseason for the first time since 2013, they can look back on those three weeks as the uppercut from which they couldn't recover.

Pittsburgh still has a couple avenues that lead to the playoffs. With a victory over Cincinnati AND a Cleveland win over Baltimore, the Steelers would leapfrog the Ravens for the North title. Strangely enough, they have to root for one archrival to beat another archrival. The Steelers could also play into January IF the Colts and Titans duel to a tie in the final game of the regular season. But in neither of these scenarios do the Steelers control their own fate. And even as they cling to shreds of hope, the feeling around the team is more like impending doom.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as the Steelers kicked off in Denver, they were 7-2-1, riding high on six consecutive wins. The Ravens were scuffling along at .500, though they had just handed the ball to rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. Four turnovers later, including an inexplicable interception in the end zone, the streak was over at the hands of the Broncos. Now that game feels like a microcosm of the season with its missed opportunities and crushing mistakes. Both of Denver's second-half touchdowns followed giveaways by Pittsburgh. Even though the visitors racked up 527 total yards and dominated almost every statistical category, they stole defeat from the jaws of victory. They torpedoed themselves.

A week later, the Steelers were back home with a 23-7 lead over the Chargers as they exited the halftime locker room. But they watched Los Angeles score 23 unanswered points, including a punt return for a touchdown, and then Pittsburgh was behind the eight ball and scrambling. Philip Rivers got the ball last and orchestrated a masterful drive to set up the game-winning field goal. It was the first time ANY team had ever rallied to win after trailing by 16 points in the Steel City. Pittsburgh was previously 174-0-1 with that much of a cushion! The following weekend in Oakland, it was Derek Carr who looked like the future Hall of Famer. While the Steelers couldn't figure out their medical diagnosis on Ben Roethlisberger's ribs (or something like that), the Raiders got a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes from Carr and celebrated as Chris Boswell slipped on the turf attempting a field goal to force overtime.

It would be easy to blame head coach Mike Tomlin because he doesn't always make the smartest choices in close-and-late situations (such as the fake punt try against the Saints), and he has a knack for challenging all the wrong calls on the field. But the Steelers' demise can't be pinned on one person. There is more than enough blame to go around. The defense has failed to protect second-half leads. They own a losing record in games decided by five points or fewer. Their former Pro Bowl kicker has the yips. Boswell owns the worst field goal percentage in the league (65 percent), and he's missed a dozen total kicks this year. The most telling stat may be the turnovers. In their last five games, the Steelers have coughed the ball up ten times; they've sunk near the bottom of the NFL in turnover differential (-10). Only Arizona, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and San Francisco rank lower.

As Tomlin said after Sunday's loss in New Orleans, they made their bed and now they have to lie in it. And Baltimore deserves credit for righting the ship and winning five of its last six to put pressure on Pittsburgh. While squeezing into the playoffs would serve as a healing tonic, there's no denying the Steelers have underachieved and cost themselves dearly. If they MISS the postseason, theirs will be the worst failure in the NFL this year. Considering their talent, experience, wisdom, and veteran leadership, it will be nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, cbssportsradio.com and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.