Hope still exists for Steelers

BALTIMORE – Certainly, this latest blow to the Steelers’ disappointing 2013 season was the final one, right?

The Steelers did a terrific job the last three weeks to push themselves back into playoff contention, despite the 0-4 start, despite the bad loss in Oakland and despite the 55 points allowed to the Patriots.

But Thursday night’s 22-20 setback to their hated rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, in a prime-time national telecast on Thanksgiving day in what felt like a playoff atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium, finally put this underachieving 5-7 team out of its misery. Right?

It would certainly seem that way, but this is the NFL, and right now Pittsburgh is still a team that could find itself playing on Jan. 4 or 5. That might sound crazy after the Steelers’ disappointing loss Thursday, but it is a fact.

The Steelers missed a golden opportunity to strengthen their position in vying for the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot. They could have held the season series over Baltimore and forced teams like the Titans, Chargers, Jets and Dolphins to try and keep pace.

Instead, they are looking up at those teams today because they couldn’t come through with the game on the line.

“It was a hard-fought football game, obviously,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “but not enough on our part not enough plays down the stretch.”

The Steelers looked flat early with the offense failing to generate much of a running game and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not playing up to his midseason standard. The defensive secondary, especially Ike Taylor, was out of position most of the first half, too.

Even the special teams looked awful with kicker Shaun Suisham botching a field-goal attempt in the second quarter that helped turn a possible 7-3 Ravens lead into a 10-0 advantage.

The Steelers didn’t go down without a fight and played like a desperate team in the second half. Roethlisberger came out firing, and they eventually had a chance to tie the game at the end, but his two-point conversion pass to Emmanuel Sanders was incomplete.

“We came here to win,” Tomlin said. “We’ll take responsibility for not doing enough.”

Just as they put those 55 Patriots points behind them and the 27 second-quarter points the Detroit Lions scored on them a few weeks ago, the Steelers can forget about Thursday’s loss and still make a December run.

The schedule sets up nicely with three out of four games at home – they host the Dolphins and Bengals the next two weeks, then travel to Green Bay before finishing the regular season at Heinz Field against the Cleveland Browns. A 9-7 record could very well clinch that final spot.

Tomlin didn’t want to speculate on the team’s chances down the stretch but was overheard saying to Ryan Clark in the locker room later that the Steelers “have to run the table now.”

As a brief history lesson, the 1989 Steelers started the season 0-2 and were outscored 92-10. That team bounced back but fell to 6-7 on Dec. 3 and was pretty much finished. The Steelers then rallied to win their last three games and surprisingly made the playoffs, knocked off the favored Houston Oilers and came within one point of upsetting the eventual AFC champion Broncos in Denver.

The odds are not in the Steelers’ favor again this year, and losing to Baltimore might be too much to overcome.

But a few weeks ago, the Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving night game was looking like a dud – a good one to sleep through while digesting all of those carbs from grandma’s cooking earlier in the day.

That changed quickly to the point where it was almost like a playoff game Thursday night. The way the NFL is set up, the Steelers might have a few more playoff-type games in December.

For that, these up-and-down Steelers can be most thankful.

Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or bfrank@altoonamirror.com.