"When you lose," Chuck Noll often said, "whatever they say about you is true."
The Steelers lost on Monday night in Cincinnati, and there doesn't seem to be much that can be said about it that isn't true. Even with a dictionary full of adjectives at your fingertips, there don't seem to be words for that 60-minute performance, certainly none capable of explaining the why, or the how, without having everything devolve into a venomous rant. The game most likely will be recorded as the biggest upset of this 2020 NFL season, and most everyone who watched the entirety of it would testify that 27-17 really doesn't do justice to the degree of the butt-kicking it actually was.
There have been injuries that drained their depth chart and scheduling inequities that sapped their stamina and tendencies that have exposed their weaknesses and revealed their plan of attack, but none of that in any combination can explain how these Steelers were so definitively defeated by those Bengals at this stage of a season. It's true that an NFL season is a marathon, a multi-month slog, but there comes a time when it's possible to get your eyes on a prize.
This was true for the Steelers on Monday night, because walking into Paul Brown Stadium they had a chance to clinch the AFC North Division. It's not often during the course of 16 regular season games over 17 weeks – at least theoretically 16 regular season games over 17 weeks when there's a global pandemic to navigate – when an NFL team comes face-to-face with a scenario where if it does this it gets that.
That's where the Steelers were going into this matchup against the Bengals. Win that one game and get the spoils of a division championship, which starts with at least one home game during the postseason and includes a little bit of distance between them and Buffalo, Kansas City, and Tennessee as the bracket unfolds. Then build on that one win with another next Sunday, and there figured to be more home games, maybe a chance to rest some starters, and more time before having to dive into the deep end of the competitive pool.
But hey, that all seems laughable now, because after the loss to the Bengals, and more telling after the way they lost to the Bengals, it's a tough argument to make the case the Steelers wouldn't drown in a tablespoon of water let alone in the deep end of any pool.
Adding to the general Twilight Zone feel of the evening was this historical irony: In the same game in which Ben Roethlisberger became one of six quarterbacks in NFL history to complete 5,000 passes in his career and one of seven in NFL history to pass for 60,000 yards, he played his worst game of the season, one of the worst games in what most everyone believes will end up being a Hall of Fame career.
And while Roethlisberger reached those milestones, there also were these lowlights: Monday night capped the first four-game stretch of games with Roethlisberger as the starter where the Steelers failed to score 20 points in any of them since his rookie season of 2004; and it was the first time the Bengals held the Steelers scoreless through the entire first half of a game since November 1990, when Noll was nearing the end of his 23-season career and Roethlisberger was 8 years old.
In the NFL, apparent mismatches become hotly contested games and then develop into upsets because of turnovers, and Roethlisberger was a central figure in that storyline. The first turnover came when a botched exchange from Maurkice Pouncey with Roethlisberger operating under center was exacerbated by David DeCastro pulling from his right guard spot and knocking the loose ball toward the Bengals defense.
Next up was a lost fumble by JuJu Smith-Schuster that came when he was separated from the ball by Bengals safety Vonn Bell with a violent but clean hit after a short completion over the middle, a situation undoubtedly inflamed by Smith-Schuster continuing his opponent-baiting habit of dancing on that team's logo during the pregame warmup period.
Then came a Roethlisberger interception with such a blatant throw into coverage that cornerback Mackensie Alexander appeared to be the intended receiver.
Those three turnovers led to 17 points, which is everything the Bengals managed to put up in the first half, and the Cincinnati offense needed to move the ball just 73 total yards to cash in with two touchdowns and a field goal.
And because the Steelers offense was in the process of hanging up a goose-egg against the NFL's No. 22 scoring defense, the hole in which the team found itself was considerable even against a 2-11-1 opponent. Consider that in the first half Roethlisberger completed 7-of-16 for 19 yards with an interception; that of the offense's eight total possessions in the first half, five were three-and-outs that ended with punts, another was a three-and-out that ended with Smith-Schuster's fumble; and the only possession that included any first downs ended with an interception.
In the second half, amidst a comeback of sorts, the Steelers also went about the business of showing everyone that their issues go beyond some first-half instances of carelessness by players charged with handling the football. Over the course of the game, tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Chuks Okorafor allowed eight combined hits on Roethlisberger by Carl Lawson (six) and Sam Hubbard (two); the run defense allowed 94 of the 158 yards the Bengals gained on the ground in the second half, with quarterback Ryan Finley accounting for 35 of those on designed plays; and the Bengals needed to attempt only five passes in the second half to add 10 more points without the benefit of any more takeaways.
"We turned the ball over in the early portions of the game. You can't do that vs. anybody," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We gave them a short field three times in the first half, and it was an uphill battle the rest of the way because of that. I want to give them credit, but largely, we have a lot of work to do. We're not a good football group right now. We understand the consequences that come with that. We are working on a short week. We have to be better than what we've been. That's just the reality of it."
The Steelers have two games remaining, both against 10-4 teams – Indianapolis at 1 p.m. on Sunday, and then a game on Jan. 3 against the 10-4 Browns in Cleveland that looks to have all the requirements to be flexed from its 1 p.m. scheduled kickoff time. A win in either of those games would give the Steelers the AFC North title they could've had by defeating the Bengals. But at this stage, the Steelers look nothing like the team that swept the Ravens, beat the Titans in Tennessee, and hung a 38-7 on the Browns at Heinz Field.
"Shoot, we better not be confident after a performance like that," said Tomlin about the state of his team's psyche. "I'm not concerned about our confidence. We have work to do."
There is work to do, because the season is not over. It just feels like it is.