Deep down, you knew it couldn't last. Everyone who was being honest with themselves had to know this formula for victory was very, very fragile. Certainly in today's NFL, certainly in December, and especially so against teams good enough to be one win away from clinching a playoff spot.
After starting 0-3 and losing their franchise quarterback for the rest of the season halfway through those 12 quarters of not-good-enough football, the Steelers went on a tear and won eight of their next 10 games. The glass-half-full version of those two-and-half months is that the Steelers won with a defense that was equal parts stifling and dynamic, supported by a flawless placekicker and an offense that was fully aware its most important job was not to screw everything else up.
It worked, because the defense was sufficiently dynamic along the way to becoming the NFL leader in both sacks and takeaways, because the placekicker was money in the bank, and because the offense embraced its primary job and generally found a way to make a play or two when needed. On Sunday morning, the Steelers were 8-5 and occupants of the No. 6 seed in the AFC despite being last in the NFL in red zone efficiency and second-to-last in passing, despite having scored only one offensive touchdown in five of their last six games.
Today, they wake up at 8-6 either because their defense was out-dynamic-ed, or more likely because their offense forgot its most important job and then scored only one touchdown for the sixth time in the last seven games. The Buffalo Bills came to Heinz Field on Sunday night and left with a 17-10 victory and a win-an-in spot in the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
On couches in homes throughout Steelers Nation, there already have been reasons assigned and culprits identified for this loss, and it's very likely some of the same conclusions were reached when the Steelers gathered the morning after to view and critique the performance.
Five turnovers, including two interceptions in the end zone and a lost fumble at the Buffalo 9-yard line are way too many and in bad spots on the field, and the situation was exacerbated by the Steelers ending up a minus-3 in turnover ratio. In a one-score game, 38 pass attempts by Devlin Hodges compared to 14 combined rushing attempts by the quartet of James Conner, Benny Snell, Kerrith Whyte, and Jaylen Samuels is the polar opposite of what they had learned to be their winning formula.
The Bills defensive front generally got the better of the Steelers offensive line, and that impression is supported by the four sacks recorded by Buffalo defensive linemen. And while it's tempting to accuse the Steelers of trying to be too clever with the usage of the Wildcat in its various forms, it's also unrealistic to expect this offense to line up and be able to play it straight against a defense coming into the game ranked seventh or better in the NFL in eight different defensive categories, including yards allowed and points allowed.
And compounding the problem was the timing of some of these lapses.
Getting off to a quick start has been something the Steelers have emphasized this season for obvious reasons, but while Buffalo played the entire first quarter on its half of the field and punted twice, the Steelers failed to take advantage because their offense turned the ball over once and went three-and-out once.
If they win the opening coin toss, the Steelers like to defer because they strongly believe in the benefits of bookending halftime, which refers to scoring at the end of the first half and then taking the second half kickoff and scoring to open the third quarter. The Bills seemed to cooperate late in the first half when Josh Allen was intercepted by Stephen Nelson, whose return put the Steelers offense in great field position at the Buffalo 20-yard line.
But then came the example of the Steelers maybe trying to be too tricky, because a Wildcat snap to Conner was low, and then when he tried to hand off to Diontae Johnson, the rookie receiver lost possession of the ball and the Bills recovered at their 9-yard line and ran out the final seconds until halftime.
When the Steelers took the second half kickoff and drove 69 yards in seven plays to score their only touchdown on an 11-yard catch-and-run by Conner to take a 10-7 lead, the Bills again appeared to cooperate with the plan by losing a fumble on their first possession of the second half. But as it happened, the Steelers offense was done for the day following Conner's touchdown, because its last six possessions of the game ended: three-and-out punt, interception, three-and-out punt, three-and-out punt, interception, interception.
It was as bad a stretch as the Steelers have had offensively in the last two-and-a-half months, and what was especially unnerving was that it all happened in a game against a playoff-bound team when the margin never exceeded one score.
In the aftermath, there was praise for the Bills, an acceptance of the mistakes that shaped the outcome, and promises to go back to work to make the necessary corrections and get back in the fight. That wasn't a surprise, because the Steelers remain the sixth seed in the AFC and therefore still a part of the conference's playoff picture, but also because that's who they are.
A couple of days before lining up with the Bills, Coach Mike Tomlin was asked what he had learned about this group of Steelers over the course of this often trying season. "That they're the type of group who are willing fighters," said Tomlin. "It's always good when you feel that, when you see that. It's not the Swiss Army Knife in that it doesn't solve all the problems, but largely we have a group that runs toward the fight. And when you have that, you have a chance."
The Steelers still have a chance, but they better get back to their formula. Because that's their only chance.