All season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the roster and the record of an elite NFL team without quite feeling like one. They possessed an unmatched constellation of offensive firepower. They entered Thursday night with a 7-2 record, having effectively clinched the rancid AFC North division. And yet, they continuously fell short of convincing.
The Steelers had not won a game by more than 17 points. They had lost to the Chicago Bears and squeaked by the Cleveland Browns by three points. They had been smoked, at home, by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last week, they required a ludicrous interception from linebacker Ryan Shazier to shake off the Indianapolis Colts.
An offense with Antonio Brown, LeVeon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger, paired with a nasty homegrown defense, prompted the summer question: How good could they be? Midway through November, despite their first-place standing, it had often become: Why weren’t they better?
And then, at last, the Steelers revealed the fearsome extent of their potential. Pittsburgh demolished the Tennessee Titans, a team trying to burnish their own credentials as a legitimate contender, by a score of 40-17. They had shown glimpses this season, but they had not submitted the kind of complete showing that stamped them a true threat to the New England Patriots. That changed Thursday night.
Thursday night games are often fluky, but the Steelers dismantled previously 6-3 Tennessee in one of the most impressive performances of the season, by any team. Roethlisberger passed for 299 yards and four touchdowns, while Pittsburgh’s defense intercepted Marcus Mariota four times. The Titans, one of the best running teams in the league, averaged 2.5 yards per rush.
Brown signified the Steelers’ awakening. In his past three games, Brown had been silenced, catching a total of 12 passes and just one touchdown. For a player of his talent, Brown’s production seemed almost impossibly low. Thursday night, Brown caught 10 of the 13 passes Roethlisberger threw him for 144 yards and three touchdowns, the last of which he snared with one hand against his helmet.
The Steelers’ victory was less revelation than affirmation. They advanced to the AFC Championship last year and only added talent in the offseason, regaining wide receiver Martavis Bryant and drafting JuJu Smith-Schuster. Their defense, built through smart draft picks, was tough and fast and returned intact. For some reason, it had not come together.
If the Steelers could draw a lesson from Thursday night, it would be simple: Put the offense in Roethlisberger’s hands. On the NBC broadcast, Cris Collinsworth noted the Steelers had decided to run mostly no-huddle, believing on a short week it would give them the best chance to call a streamlined game plan. They may have found a useful wrinkle for future games. At this stage in his career, Roethlisberger’s mental skills may be more valuable than his physical ability. Allowing him to diagnose the defense and call plays at the line animated Pittsburgh’s offense.
From the start, Pittsburgh’s season has tilted toward a potential postseason rematch with New England, which bounced them in a rout. The combination of their performance Thursday and their schedule creates the likelihood of a monumental showdown Week 15 against the Patriots in Pittsburgh, a game that could possibly decide home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
Five of the Steelers’ remaining opponents are the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers, Bengals, Ravens, Deshaun Watson-less Texans and Browns. The sixth is the Patriots. They have a clear path to 13 victories, and by beating New England and all the teams they should beat, the Steelers would clinch the top seed.
The Steelers have a game in hand, and at 8-2 they have the best record in the AFC. For perhaps the first time Thursday night, they played like one of the best teams in the NFL.
>>> Contrary to reports, NFL owners are not threatening to oust Jerry Jones as the Cowboys owner, Mark Maske writes. “That’s ridiculous,” one owner said. “That’s not going to happen.” At the same time, Jones sent a letter requesting an owners meeting regarding Roger Goodell’s proposed contract extension. As the saga evolves daily, the most intriguing question may be how much support Jones really has, or how much support he can create. If only two or three owners agree with him, his bluff will eventually be called. If he’s rallying cohorts to his cause, then the story may just be getting started.
>> The Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald are nearing a one-year contract extension, Pro Football Talk reports. It’s notable not only because Fitzgerald will stay with the Cardinals, but because the 34-year-old evidently will continue his Hall of Fame career.
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