I’d love to pound out a column applauding the Steelers even though they lost 41-37 Sunday night in Los Angeles.
Since coach Mike Tomlin’s squad was missing five starters on defense, they should be praised for making a valiant comeback against a quality Chargers team, with a blossoming young quarterback in Justin Herbert.
The special teams made a huge play. The offense had its highest point total of the season. The defense stepped up late in the evening and won three clutch series, including stopping a fourth-down try and getting an interception.
In a vacuum, it’d be easy to say, “You can’t win ‘em all. It was an exciting game, against a solid opponent, on the road, played under difficult roster circumstances.”
The problem is, the Steelers aren’t in a vacuum.
What they need is a different kind of vacuum. One with enough power to suck up either (or both) of those early-season home losses to the Las Vegas Raiders or Cincinnati Bengals. Or at least enough suction to make that awful tie against the Detroit Lions disappear.
Actually, forget attempts to escape the past for these 5-4-1 Steelers. Look at what’s looming on the horizon during the team’s final seven games. It’s possible that the Steelers may be underdogs in every one of them.
That’s not to say they’ll lose them all. This is the NFL in 2021. Every team should expect to lose a few they shouldn’t and win a few we expect they can’t. Tomlin’s team won’t go 0-7 the rest of the way. They’ll probably go 3-4 or 4-3 like everybody else.
But 8-8-1 will likely leave them short of the playoffs. Does 9-7-1 get them in?
It might not. That’s why you can’t tie the Lions. And if you do tie the Lions, that’s why you can’t give back a 37-34 lead just 75 seconds after you grabbed it from the Chargers.
Under those circumstances, that’s when a “tough, hard-fought defeat” turns into just a blown lead and a bad loss.
Want a happier spin? Then don’t spiral downward for three weeks in a row against the Raiders, Bengals and Packers.
“We’re just going to have to get it figured out and play our best football down the home stretch,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after the loss in Los Angeles. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s when you can play your best football. We have a few games left. We have a lot of division games coming.”
Fair enough. Now they better win ‘em. Because the wiggle room is slipping away.
In theory, storming back from 17 points down on the road — with half a defense, and a quarterback fresh off of coronavirus — is the perfect opportunity to grant the team an “atta boy” for the old college try.
But they couldn’t figure out a way to score a 17th point against the Lions in 70 minutes of football a week ago.
As a result, I’m not going to tie myself in a knot figuring out a way to give them any benefit of the doubt points for 15 exhilarating minutes of football against the Los Angeles Chargers.
“It’s a big loss. You never like to lose football games,” Roethlisberger said. “But it’s a good football team. We came to their place. Things happen. There’s still some time left.”
Sure. Seven weeks to be exact. Six of those games will be against AFC foes in contention for playoff spots. Four within the division. None against teams below .500.
They better find a way to win four or five of them. The first of which is against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. After their first meeting — a 24-10 Bengals win — Cincinnati receiver Tyler Boyd suggested the Steelers quit at the end of the game.
I didn’t believe that then. And I know the Steelers didn’t quit when they were down big in Los Angeles. But the results of both games were the same. The Steelers weren’t good enough either time.
Therefore, any congratulations for good efforts are ringing increasingly hollow with every passing defeat.
So let’s avoid acting like these glad tidings matter, even if they are deserved. The only thing that matters going forward is how often the Steelers win or lose.
Or — in their case — tie.