HOUSTON – They accomplished what they needed to accomplish here last night, one of the things that was impressive about it was the business-like manner in which they went about it.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were offered up as a Christmas Day treat for their nation of fans for the second year in a row, and they were going to have to deal with it just eight days after a gut-wrenching loss to New England that felt more like robbery than defeat. The opponent was a Texans team whose claim to fame at this stage of the 2017 season was the length of its injured reserve list, but the game was critical to the Steelers because of the first-round bye in the playoffs that was at stake.
"I just think time is the only thing that heals certain wounds from a professional sports perspective," said Mike Tomlin in the days between losing to the Patriots and having to travel to Houston to spend Christmas Eve in a hotel. "And that's just the reality of it. We're all a product of our experiences, (and) some of our experiences shape us and change us forever. That's just the nature of this thing and the importance of some of these games and how they unfold. We all carry a little bit of how games unfold with us as we proceed, but that's the experience that allows us to deal with the next challenges as we all grow."
This Christmas challenge for the Steelers seemed to be more about shrugging off any lingering effects of the Al Riveron caper than anything the 4-10 Texans might be able to put together, and shortly after the ball was on the tee for the scheduled 4:30 p.m. kickoff, they punched the clock and did their jobs. The day's work ended with a 34-6 victory that was as decisive as that margin might indicate, and because it was achieved with only minimal demands made on the medical/training staffs it turned out to be a very merry Christmas.
The best way to handle a team in the Texans' position is to get off to a fast start and dissuade their players from believing they could pull off an upset. On the Steelers first five offensive possessions, they scored two touchdowns and kicked two field goals, and on the Texans first five possessions, their defense forced three punts and had two takeaways. From there, it just became a guessing game as to when it would come down to Landry Jones under center and handing the ball off to Stevan Ridley.
The victory raised their record to 12-3, and while it marked the fourth season in Tomlin's 11 as the team's coach where the Steelers will finish with at least 12 wins, the immediate significance of dispatching the Texans was that it secured them a first-round bye in the playoffs.
"Quite simply, it is a free pass to round two in the playoffs," said Tomlin about the significance of the bye. "You'll take passes to rounds in the playoffs. You step into a stadium and you have an opportunity to win, likewise you step into a stadium and you have an opportunity to lose. First-round byes are just that – you get a pass to the second round. Obviously, that's something of value, but it also gives us an opportunity to get guys who are carrying nicks and so forth healthy. Guys like Antonio Brown and others who may be on a short list of guys who could be better with a week's rest. So, whenever you're given an opportunity, you take that. You don't worry about rust and things of that nature. That's just media fodder as you come out of the bye. You want the bye."
The Steelers wanted that bye to maybe help them avoid playoff game(s) without the services of the best receiver in football, but a guy who returned to the lineup yesterday showed he can help them deal with any and all of those receivers listed immediately below Antonio Brown.
A few weeks ago, Joe Haden was sleeping in his AFC North Championship T-shirt while continuing to rehabilitate his broken fibula, and yesterday he was shadowing the second-best receiver in football all over the field in his first game back after missing five with that injury.
It's been some time since the Steelers have had a cornerback in whom they have enough confidence to match up against one of the league's best receivers, but that's exactly what they did yesterday by assigning Haden to DeAndre Hopkins, who walked onto the turf inside NRG Stadium with 92 catches for 1,313 yards (14.3 average) and 12 touchdowns. To put those numbers into perspective, Brown has 101 catches for 1,533 yards (15.2 average) and nine touchdowns.
"He did a great job. That's one of the reasons why we were really excited about acquiring Joe Haden," said Tomlin after the game, "because he is capable of doing those things. We've seen him do those things against us in stadiums. Good to have one of those type guys in our group. Glad to have him with us. He did a great job today."
Said Haden, "The coaches asked me two days ago if I was willing to fight (Hopkins) and I was like, 'If y'all want me do it, I'm willing and ready for the challenge.' It's something I'm used to doing. I've been doing it my whole career. It was solid to go out there and have a pretty good game."
Haden's stat line for the game looks unimpressive – two tackles and one pass defensed – but a big part of good cornerback play is convincing the opposing quarterback to go somewhere else with the football, and he did that a lot. Hopkins didn't have a catch in the entire first half that ended with the Steelers holding a 20-0 lead, and his first reception came on the final play of the third quarter, by which time the lead was 27-0.
Game action photos from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 16 game against the Houston Texans
Yes, Hopkins did finish with four catches and Houston's only touchdown on a 3-yard pass early in the fourth quarter, and yes, it was T.J. Yates and Taylor Heinicke who were the quarterbacks trying to get him the football, but Haden's ability to line up opposite a receiver of that caliber and more than hold his own is an element that will become critical for this Steelers defense once the postseason begins.
And because of what they accomplished here yesterday, their postseason doesn't begin until the Divisional Round. The playoffs are coming, and what Joe Haden showed in his return to the lineup indicates the Steelers will be better equipped to deal with the challenges their playoff opponents will present to them when they do.