It's a new week, and everything is different. But not in a good way.
What had been an isolated loss, now is a two-game losing streak. What could have been viewed as a wake-up call has become a cry for help. What had seemed to be an example of a veteran quarterback putting himself in the line of fire to bear the brunt of the criticism suddenly seems as though it might be a self-imposed ultimatum. What were challenging situations, bits of adversity aching to be overcome, injuries creating opportunities for others in the short term and ultimately strengthening the group as a whole in the long term all look to be growing into deal-breakers right before our eyes.
Two things happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend: they clinched a spot in the AFC playoffs, and they were defeated by the Buffalo Bills, 26-15. The former means they have returned to the postseason after not qualifying during the previous two seasons, and the latter is contributing to the sense that their presence in the aforementioned postseason will last exactly four quarters and no longer because of a bad case of the "toos."
Too one-dimensional on offense. Too predictable. Too old in some of the important areas of their depth chart and too young in some of the other, yet equally important, areas of their depth chart. Too many dropped passes. Too generous against the run. Too dependent on the quarterback to convert every third down and every red zone possession. And too many injuries. Way, way too many injuries.
And so it goes. A season that began with a combination of promise, excitement, and expectation created by an 11-game winning streak that set a franchise record while in the process left them as the NFL's last team with a perfect record in this wacky 2020 regular season all of a sudden has the feeling of a cross to bear.
Let's pretend a deeper dive into their current situation leads to a conclusion that their loss to Washington never would have happened had the professionals they are paying to catch the football simply had caught the footballs that hit them in the hands, and that this fresh bit of hell they're experiencing as a result of losing on the road to a Bills team that is 10-3 and on the verge of claiming the AFC East title very well could have turned out differently if they hadn't had to play the game without their best cornerback, without their top three inside linebackers, and without two of their top six offensive linemen, then is that an accurate assessment and thus a sign this is a trend that still can be reversed, or is it a Pollyanna view that boils down to an exercise in excuse-making.
Today, there is no way of telling which in fact it is, and that does nothing except ratchet up the angst while making their current problems more difficult to address.
Against the Bills, dropped passes again were an issue, but this time it was only Diontae Johnson at fault, and Coach Mike Tomlin dealt with that by replacing the second-year receiver with James Washington. After their first five possessions ended with punts, the Steelers defense came up with a takeaway in the form of a Mike Hilton forced fumble following a completion to Dawson Knox that Cam Sutton recovered at the Buffalo 30-yard line. Two plays later, Tomlin's personnel move paid dividends when Ben Roethlisberger combined with Washington for a 19-yard touchdown that staked the Steelers to a 7-0 lead.
Right before the two-minute warning of the first half, the Steelers got hosed on a roughing the passer penalty on Henry Mondeaux that wasn't, and the 15 yards handed the Bills a first down at the Pittsburgh 16-yard line. But the defense stiffened, with Cam Heyward getting pressure on Josh Allen on first down, and Steven Nelson breaking up a pass in the end zone on second down, and Buffalo ended up settling for a red zone field goal.
As they had against Washington, the Steelers offense seemed to be coming alive late in the second quarter. But Roethlisberger made a critical error in trying to get the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the resulting pick-six by Taron Johnson gave the Bills a lead they'd never relinquish, 9-7. Touchdowns on their first two possessions of the second half expanded Buffalo's lead to 23-7, and the Steelers couldn't recover enough to mount a serious comeback.
"I saw them go into a zone coverage," said Roethlisberger about the pick-six, "so I tried to keep JuJu from going out to the corner to get blown up. I put it a little bit on his body behind him, and the guy made a good play. It's just a bad play on my part. You can't do that at the end of the half, giving them points, not just a turnover, but they get points off it. (That's) 110 percent on me.
"Like I said, we need to look in the mirror, and it starts with me," said Roethlisberger in answering another question. "I need to play better football because the ball is in my hands every single play. When it's in my hands, I need to make the best decision. Right now, I'm not playing good enough football to win … If I don't play good enough football, then I need to hang it up. I still feel like I can do enough things to help this team win football games. I'm going to do everything I can to get us back on track."
That sounds good, and it seems plausible as well. The way the sport is played at the professional level, no individual player is more in control of the outcome of a game than the quarterback, and Roethlisberger repeatedly has shown in 2020 that he can be the reason why the Steelers win.
That's the optimistic view, and the mathematics say that with three games remaining, the Steelers are 11-2 and still can reach every goal they had set coming into this season. The optics, however, right now are telling a different story.