After a charmed, inspiring, dependably hardscrabble nine-game winning streak that might as well have paired with Oscar-winning Jerry Goldsmith accompaniment and protective detail from a coterie of animated Disney mice, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ gilded royal coach turned back into a pumpkin Sunday night in the manner and place it has so many times over the years, against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Before a justifiably frenzied crowd of 66,000 jolly Affleckian sub-townies, Boston chowderheads, Revolutionary War reenactors, and other loveable regional stereotypes, the Steelers’ resurgent, frankly overachieving defense picked an auspicious occasion and opponent on/against which to revert to general ineffectiveness, and its offense could not make up the difference. Last weekend’s spectacular Packers/Cowboys gunfight at the O.K. Corrall (Jerryworld annex) had sports pundits nationwide asking with alarmingly straight faces whether noted State Farm pitchman Aaron Rodgers was not just the greatest quarterback in today’s NFL but of all time. You know how frequently a morning’s ESPN talking points can morph into overarching marching orders for the network’s menagerie of talking heads. The percentage of respondents who appeared to be taking such hokum seriously made me wish I had a glass of milk handy to symbolically spit out in disbelief. Because, with all due respect to both Rodgers’ pedigree and track record, and the jaw-dropping stretch of semi-consciousness in which he single-handedly propelled the 4-6 Packers to eight straight victories, an NFC North crown, and a Wild Card berth, the answer to both questions, as much as it truly pains me to say, is the man the Steelers played in the AFC Championship: one Thomasin Medford McGillicutty Brady XIV.
Pittsburgh rode its own gaudy nine-game winning streak into Foxborough’s Guillotine, er, Gillette Stadium, looking to crash conclusively its first high profile, even-strength party with New England in near a dozen such contests, dating back to the height of Cowher Power just past the turn of the century. What the Steelers are to Browns fans, the Patriots have been to us. It’s been a frustrating history of futility, and what arguably hurts the most is that of Tom Tremendous’ six previous trips to the Super Bowl, he twice stepped over the Steelers in the AFC title game to get there. Make that three times now. Despite a trio of skill position players – future Hall of Fame QB Ben Roethlisberger, plus 2016 all-pro RB and WR Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown respectively – that objectively ranks with any in the league’s upper echelon, and volcanic offensive potential that, though largely untapped, has nevertheless been breathlessly touted and anticipated since before training camp, the Steelers entered play Sunday as the Championship Round’s longest shot and designated also-ran. Deep-seated matters of pride aside, the intelligentsia had a point for once. Head coach Mike Tomlin, with his matter-of-fact prioritization of “what’s on tape” over potential, would likely agree. When it came down to comparing Pittsburgh’s offensive prowess to the three other bodies of work, that of likely league MVP Matt Ryan’s Falcons, or the anointed Rodgers’ Packers, or the obnoxiously godlike Brady’s Patriots, one of these things was truly not like the other. It’s the difference between merely simmering, bubbling on occasion, and bringing your brew to a boil on command.
So three quarters of the NFL’s Final Four had offensive tape fit to wake the dead upon viewing, while the fourth, despite sustained flashes of brilliance throughout the season, still existed, at least in part, within the realm of imagination. Still, the individual pieces were mouthwatering. Team MVP Le’Veon Bell set and then reset Steelers playoff rushing records in alternately gouging and torching first the Dolphins and then the Chiefs, and flew past 1000 regular season yards despite sitting out a quarter of the year. Antonio Brown only missed his second consecutive receiving title because he was held out of the regular season finale as a healthy scratch. Roethlisberger remains an elite, if occasionally mercurial, signal-caller, hearty and heady and determined, and the offensive line protecting him has gelled under Mike Munchak’s tutelage into one of the league’s most formidable and consistent units. Questions lingered about the big game fitness of the remaining receiving corps, or of the general soundness of the young defense, though it had excelled since that heartbreaking last-second loss to Dallas back in November, transforming into a simultaneously much more disciplined and attacking unit. Whatever the combination of factors conspiring against them this day – quarterback, game-planning, dogged defense, crowd, history, public opinion, occasion – the Steelers, so resilient for so long, simply could not rise together and cohere enough to answer them. It was a steep, sudden decline, and a sharp return to Earth.
One of my favorite Mike Tomlinisms, paraphrased, and appropriated by an increasing number of coaches in recent times, goes something like this: “It’s not about our opponents, but, rather, about how we play.” As a fan of Tomlin’s style and demeanor, sly but straightforward attitude, not to mention near every word that comes out of his mouth, I took it personally when Steeler great, Fox shill, and anthropomorphic Pez dispenser Terry Bradshaw pointedly questioned his coaching ability. Tomlin’s team certainly seemed to take that criticism as a bone of contention and a rallying cry for their second half run. Surely it’s not a hard-and-fast requirement for greatness that you beat the very best your sport has to offer with terrific regularity. League-wide parity has turned the NFL into a graveyard of dreams, where it’s difficult enough to win any given week, let alone conquer an entire season. Yet here the Steelers found themselves, again, in astonishingly familiar territory, playing in the conference championship game for the 16th time in the Super Bowl era’s 51-year history. As fans, we’re undeniably blessed. The setbacks sting so much in part because of the burden of expectations they reflect. Some days you just don’t have it, however. I have little but praise for the freshly minted, perpetually anointed AFC champions. The Patriots are a team with no glaring weaknesses and few enough realistically capable of being nitpicked. They were surgical and bloodless and handled their business admirably. The better team won Sunday, and clearly, but they did not do it alone.
The single biggest reason for Sunday’s loss may well have been its most obvious, the easily provable notion that New England was just the empirically better team. A true postmortem can’t just summarily sweep all remaining contributing factors under the rug, loath as I normally would be to succumb to or wallow in excess negativity. The strictures of personal responsibility and constructive self-evaluation require the Pittsburgh Steelers, starting with their coach, to look squarely into the mirror and make an honest accounting of their effort, which here lacked in coaching, game-planning, and all three phases of play. Chances are Mike Tomlin is getting a good eyeful of his snazzy reflection even as I type this. Objectively, the Steelers were one of the four or five best teams in the NFL this year. Any distance separating them from their highest competition should therefore be bridgeable. Under the radar, with a comparative dearth of marquee names, New England’s defense ended the year statistically on roughly equal footing with its vaunted offense, and hence was nothing to take lightly. I hope we didn’t. What I saw Sunday was inconclusive. The Steelers, of course, have any number of ways to attack offensively, though the current playoff run had been built squarely upon the unique rushing talents of Le’Veon Bell. So to say that the offense was hampered by the heretofore reliable Bell’s loss to a groin injury halfway through the first period would be a gross understatement. Grade A backup DeAngelo Williams filled in capably enough, but the downgrade from Bell in overall dynamism, running consistency, and big play capability put the Steelers squarely behind the 8-ball. As such, any early victories – such as holding the Pats to a field goal on the opening drive – felt minimal, whereas individual mistakes – dropped passes, stuffed runs – looked especially telling in hindsight.
Contrary to popular opinion, playing the perfect game isn’t necessary to defeat New England, though the team does historically have a real knack for making its opponents comprehensively pay for their sins. Bell’s absence couldn’t help but hinder, and possibly hobble, the offense, which had been built to feature him, forcing Pittsburgh to largely abandon the balance that had been a prime catalyst of their recent success. Elsewhere, Patriots defenders effectively doubled Antonio Brown seemingly from the moment he emerged from the pre-game tunnel, forcing Ben to check down to younger receivers whose reliability was more in question. Cobi Hamilton dropped an end zone touchdown, and snake-bitten Sammie Coates dropped in depressing succession a long first down completion and then a sure TD of his own. Eli Rogers and TE Jesse James acquitted themselves well on the whole, though Rogers lost a crucial fumble over the middle and James came up just short of pay dirt on a rumbling, long completion, leading to the night’s quintessential sequence, a terribly called goal line implosion on three consecutive, virtually identical, squelched runs. This inability by the Steelers to adjust to answer an opponent’s strengths or exploit their weaknesses would prove the story of the game. Brady, a superior battlefield technician on his worst day, tends to save his choicest performances for the playoffs, and spent the evening shooting holes in the soft, patchy flesh of the Steelers secondary like a sniper of world renown. He even got Mike Mitchell to bite on a fleaflicker, the scamp, applying the first true turn of the screw in what had been, until then, a relatively close game but would end a 36-17 romp.
If Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field is sometimes referred to as “The Big Ketchup Bottle,” then Gillette Stadium by similar thinking could be “The Big Razor Blade,” which, given Brady’s patient and precise “death by 1000 cuts” strategy, only seems appropriate. Even Tom Thumb’s lone, inexplicable mistake – fumbling a midfield QB sneak that the Steelers did recover, however, ahem, “unclearly” – was insufficient to haunt him. The Steelers were stout against the run in those spare moments when Brady paid lip-service to the notion that the Patriots are more than simply a world-class aerial war machine, though Pittsburgh’s abysmal third down conversion-against rate (65%) told the real story. In all, the Brady Bunch scored on a depressing 7 of its 11 total possessions and reliably zipped the ball down the field by repeatedly hitting the Steelers wherever they weren’t. After a hopeful early sack up the gut from NT Javon Hargrave, the Steelers generated exactly zero pressure the rest of the night, allowing Brady to take root, lock into a groove, and systematically exploit/dismantle Keith Butler’s zone pass defense as if playing Minesweeper on beginner’s difficulty. I remember clearly Sean Davis coming on a third down safety blitz only to bounce off the left tackle before he could even sniff the backfield. Wanna venture a guess on how that conversion attempt turned out? Butler’s philosophy is predicated on crisp tackling, ball pursuit, and denying big plays. What it couldn’t deny were first downs, or yards after catch, or fewer than two 100-yard receivers – one of whom I hadn’t even heard of, and the other I only wish I had. The Steelers’ eye-catching penalty total (only 3, for 19 yards) was another misleading statistic, as it’s exceedingly hard for defensive backs, regardless of their skill level, to interfere with uncovered, wide open receivers.
If genial, vacuous CBS masters of ceremonies Jim Nantz and Phil Simms could hardly contain their admiration for the Patriots, slathering them in a veritable sweet barbecue glaze of effusive, though generally warranted, praise, it sometimes seemed the referees were equally dazzled. I hate agreeing with Simms on anything, and, indeed, am almost always surprised when it happens, but damned if I didn’t routinely hear the empty suit/Announce-O-Matic plucking words right out of my mouth, especially in the second half – selected comments including, “Tom Brady is completely having his way with this zone,” and, “The Steelers have to change something up to have any hope of getting back in this game.” Some nuggets were simply clutch/vintage Simmsian insight, such as, “Losing Le’Veon Bell is a big loss,” but I also couldn’t help but be struck by highly specific bet-hedging/doublespeak like, “That could really have been a penalty for illegally batting an onside kick out of bounds” (no, it wasn’t called) and, “I think that might’ve been a fumble recovery by the Steelers” (not only wasn’t it called, it wasn’t noticed, and a perturbed Tomlin had to throw the challenge flag twice just to break the refs’ concentration). Indeed, I found out after the break that the Steelers, having dissected the in stadium replay, were so convinced in the justice of their cause that the offense had already massed together on the field, ready to resume play. That’s a January Sunday in Foxborough for you.
Questions naturally abound for this team as it heads into the offseason. Does sufficient money exist to retain both Brown and Bell, or are questions surrounding Brown’s me-first selfishness (I don’t buy it) and Bell’s ability to remain healthy (ditto) primed to necessitate a choice of one thoroughbred over the other? Did defensive stalwart James Harrison play his last snap in Foxborough? (he says no, and I wouldn’t contradict him) What about Lawrence Timmons? (hope not) William Gay? (quite possible) Jarvis Jones? (even money) Will tantalizing free agent fizzler Ladarius Green ever get out of the NFL’s concussion protocol? How do we make this pass rush truly effective again? How much longer can the 34-year-old Roethlisberger be himself at a high level? To the degree that the Steelers were competitive at all on Sunday, it was only because Ben put them on his back. The late touchdown drive that heaved them into double figures was vintage pressurized Roethlisberger, in addition to far too little, much too late. This team dripped with dread potential in May, and nothing has happened to change my opinion or alter my invariably positive spin in the interim. I do miss Heath Miller, who retired last year, and also Cam Heyward, who didn’t. I came to the realization while watching the AFC Championship that the Steelers, who put together a tremendous 2016 in spite of the gracelessness of their landing, who have much of which to be proud, and were among the scariest outs in all of football for a sustained, almost two-month stretch, who played together and played as a team right up until the moment they fell apart, are built, like a superior college team would be, to emerge battletested and victorious from the unforgiving mortal combat of the AFC North. Having again graduated to the deep national stage this postseason after years of largely fruitless toil, if they not only wish to remain but thrive there, they have to understand that something fundamental is missing. I can only pray to the football gods for an incoming draft class as sterling as 2016’s, but it’s a start.
Through it all, I remain confident in the minds behind the product and the hearts out on the field, and that Mike Tomlin will force everyone involved to look the mirror dead in its glass eye and go to work. Accountability will be preached, as it always is, mistakes will be learned from, and the standard will remain the standard. I’ll see you next season, Steelers Nation. Here we go.