Aside from it being one of the most unorthodox finishes to a football game — let alone a playoff game — in recent memory, Pittsburgh’s 18-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals showed that the Steelers can never be counted out.
“We made just enough plays to pull it out,” Coach Mike Tomlin said after the game.
“We won the game. That’s all that matters,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger added. “There’s no quit in this team.”
This wasn’t the first time the black and yellow staged a dramatic win; less than a month ago, Tomlin’s outfit pulled off its largest comeback win in nearly 20 years against the Denver Broncos, the team Pittsburgh squares off with in the next round of the playoffs.
There was another lesson that can be distilled from Pittsburgh’s win: The team has enough on offense and defense to win the Super Bowl.
Gary Kubiak will reportedly start Peyton Manning in next week’s AFC Divisional Playoff. Manning, mind you, is in the midst of the worst season of his 18-year professional career in passing yards, passing touchdowns, quarterback rating and interception percentage.
Should Pittsburgh get past the Broncos, they’ll need two more wins to win a world championship.
Here’s why they can do it.
Pittsburgh’s defense is much improved and generates turnovers
Pittsburgh’s defensive line is tenacious, and the team racked up 48 sacks this season — the third most of any team in the NFL. Against Cincinnati, defensive coordinator Keith Butler dialed up pressure and the team sacked AJ McCarron three times, and put him under pressure throughout the night.
After ranking 30th a season ago in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the team has ascended to 11th in the metric, allowing less than 20 points per contest. Only two teams — Carolina and Arizona — had more takeaways than Pittsburgh (30), as the team saw a noticeable uptick from a season ago in its ability to procure them.
In Saturday’s win, the team forced a much-needed strip on Jeremy Hill’s carry with less than two minutes remaining in the game, which set up the winning drive. Should Pittsburgh be in a late-game situation, with the clock dwindling, this team can count on its defense to produce a timely turnover and turn the tide of the game.
Todd Haley’s offense is as formidable as any
Pittsburgh has had little difficulty producing ostentatious stat lines in the absence of star running back Le’Veon Bell, who suffered a season-ending injury in November.
Haley’s unit ranks in the top three in scoring offense (26.4 points per contest), total offense (395.4 yards per game), passing offense (287.7 yards per game) and offensive DVOA. In 2008, the last time Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl, its offense ranked 21st in DVOA and averaged 21.7 points per contest.
Should Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger be healthy for the remainder of the season — and it’s worth noting that much of the team’s success is dependent on those two players being healthy moving forward — Pittsburgh won’t struggle to put points on the scoreboard. Roethlisberger has arguably one of the top receiver trios — Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton — in the league at his disposal. If running back DeAngelo Williams returns to the fold next week, as is expected, Pittsburgh will bring a balanced attack to the table moving forward.
With Williams mostly leading the rushing attack, Pittsburgh has averaged 4.4 yards per carry, a mark that ranks fourth among remaining playoff teams.
It hasn’t been inept defensive units that Pittsburgh has thrived against, either: Prior to the game versus Cincinnati, Pittsburgh had put up better than 305 yards of total offense in 12 consecutive games, against teams ranked 29th, 20th, 1st, 10th, 13th, 4th, 29th, 15th, 10th, 6th, 3rd and 28th in DVOA, respectively.
Tomlin’s outfit is elite on both sides of the ball, and with only three potential games remaining for the franchise there’s little reason to doubt that they can run the table.