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Labriola on the loss to the Chargers

Let’s get this out of the way first: officiating in the NFL stinks. It stinks in general , and it stunk particularly in the game last night at Heinz Field, because what other word but “stink” deserves to be attached to a performance lowlighted by two screamingly obvious calls that were missed on Chargers touchdown plays. Those misses, of course, being the false start on the 46-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin late in the first quarter, and the block in the back on Desmond King’s 73-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

I get the rationale that the officiating wasn’t what caused the Steelers to lose, 33-30, to the Chargers, and maybe that’s even true, but it’s particularly difficult to swallow when the gaffes are so obvious, so out in the open, and they contribute so directly to points scored in a game that would end up being decided by a field goal on an untimed down at the end of the fourth quarter.

Still, that doesn’t excuse the Steelers for the way they played last night, nor does it mitigate in any way the predicament in which they currently find themselves; a predicament, by the way, that’s totally their own doing. Since putting together a six-game winning streak that had them at 7-2-1 at the start of Thanksgiving week, the Steelers have lost two in a row and what then looked to be an insurmountable lead in the AFC North is now down to one-half game over the surging Baltimore Ravens, who are surging, by the way, without injured starting quarterback Joe Flacco.

Anyway, the Steelers wake up this morning at 7-4-1, still in first place in their division, but any type of projections about possible playoff seeding or what matchups that seeding could present to them is completely inappropriate for a team that looks to be back-sliding itself right out of the postseason.

Last weekend in Denver, the offense doomed itself with turnovers in scoring territory, and though it might not seem possible, the loss to the Chargers was even more maddening. It was more maddening, because the Steelers dominated the first half of the game only to backslide at the start of the third quarter and give back the advantage they had built, and then they gave back more to lose in regulation.

Through the first two quarters of the game, the Steelers allowed the Chargers a grand total of 2 yards rushing on nine attempts, and if not for the blown false start penalty that should’ve nullified the 46-yard touchdown pass to Benjamin, Philip Rivers would have completed 12-of-19 for 101 yards. The Steelers offense scored three touchdowns and got into position for a 48-yard field goal during that same time frame, to go along with twice as many first downs (14-7), a perfect 2-for-2 showing in the red zone, and Jordan Berry being called upon to punt just once – and that kick traveled 63 yards with no return.

And because the Steelers had won the coin toss and elected to defer, they were going to get the ball at the start of the third quarter. Realistically, things couldn’t have been going any better for them.

But it all changed in the second half. In their first three possessions of the second half, the Steelers managed just three first downs and punted each time. Their defense opened the second half by allowing one touchdown drive of 88 yards in 13 plays, and then another of 79 yards in seven plays.

There were some almosts for the defense but once again no takeaways. Another batted ball in the secondary found its way to the grass, and on another play Joe Haden appeared to have a bead on an interception in the end zone only to have a friendly fire hit from Sean Davis knock the ball into the air for Keenan Allen to cradle for a Chargers touchdown.

The Los Angeles running attack that managed 2 yards on nine attempts in the first half exploded for 83 on 13 in the second. Rivers converted 4-of-4 on third downs, and the Chargers offense scored on each of its second half possessions. Fans might scream for adjustments, but what sense would it have made to change the things that had been working so well through the entirety of the first 30 minutes of play.

The Steelers needed someone or some phase to make a play and save the day, but it never happened. A score by the offense at any point before it was time to play catch-up in the final five minutes might have made the Chargers’ deficit too large to overcome. Or the defense could’ve stopped them once, made a sack, denied a third-down conversion, forced a red zone field goal. And of course, the second half also included the punt return for a touchdown that should’ve been nullified by an illegal block in the back that wasn’t called.

What we saw last night at Heinz Field was a classic example of a game that good teams find a way to win. That the Steelers didn’t, or couldn’t, tells us everything we need to know about where they are right now.

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