Bring on the Steeler-less Playoffs
Playoff tickets were punched for 12 teams on Sunday, with a handful of crazy finishes having major implications. For the second consecutive year, the Steelers are on the outside looking in, capped off by perhaps their ugliest loss in either season.
It was an entirely forgettable month for the boys in black and gold. Hopes were high at the onset, having started December with their 3rd consecutive victory with a win in Arizona, and fully in control of their playoff destiny. They close the season having lost control of virtually everything else, including the ability to score points.
The Steelers knew their season was over on Sunday even before their game was. The Baltimore scoreboard operators toyed with them in the second half, displaying the Titans game on the jumbotron along with their increasingly lopsided lead in the 4th quarter. What a demoralizing feeling that must have been.
Even more demoralizing: getting outplayed by Baltimore’s scout team in the pouring rain to end the year.
The 28 – 10 loss to the Ravens capped off a disappointing season, but to have even been in contention was a testament to this team’s perseverance. They grinded out eight wins without their best player, not once complaining in press conferences or social media. You’d like to think this goes without saying, but try imagining how much more hellish this season would have been with Antonio Brown in that locker room.
Despite all that, Sunday’s game was an unmitigated disaster. Self-inflicted damage was a common occurrence, as Baltimore continually capitalized on a flurry of mistakes. The worst of them occurred with less than a minute left in the first half, the Ravens hanging onto a two-point lead. Baltimore linebacker Matt Judon sprung free past tight end Vance McDonald and into the backfield, who promptly smothered Devlin Hodges. Instead of tucking the ball away, Hodges extended his arm to avoid the sack, the rain-soaked football slipping from his hand. The Ravens offense finished it off from there, and the deficit at halftime suddenly became seven more points than it should have been.
The Steelers were able to get back to within striking distance thanks to a quiet third quarter; Boswell’s 26-yard field goal was the only score by either team. Then, more of the same mistakes in the 4th quarter, as punter Jordan Berry bobbled a snap, tried to escape, and was promptly pulverized. The fumbled ball waddled into the end zone, and the Ravens pounced for another gift of a touchdown. Twenty three seconds later, Hodges would be called for a safety after an intentional grounding call. Ravens’ safety Brandon Carr zoomed by a statue-like Ramon Foster to force the errant throw. Sadly, it may have been Foster’s final meaningful snap in a Steelers uniform.
Along with Foster, the front office will have a handful of difficult decisions this offseason. The team can save a notable chunk of cash by parting with the 11-year veteran. All things considered, he has had quite a career; the former undrafted free agent has earned over $22 million dollars during his Pittsburgh tenure.
Meanwhile, the lurking free agency of linebacker Bud Dupree will be all the buzz this offseason, particularly without a 1st round pick in this year’s draft. The Steelers will no doubt do everything within their power to keep Dupree, while letting a few others find new work. Cornerback Artie Burns will likely be looking for a new team in 2020, while safety Sean Davis’s services are no longer needed with Minkah Fitzpatrick at the helm. Nose Tackle Javon Hargrave is the wildcard—he proved his reliability in 2020, which unfortunately has gotten the attention from other teams.
There were plenty of bright spots to be excited about 2020. Fitzpatrick has been a star, rookies Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson already look like bonafide starters, and kicker Chris Boswell rebounded with a career season one year after fighting off an open tryout for his job.
The coaching situation will be worth monitoring; the public wants a scapegoat, a role seemingly reserved for offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. You may now Rest in Peace, wildcat formation.
While Coach of the Year accolades are off the table given the December meltdown, Mike Tomlin was able to scrap together eight wins with a rotating door at the most critical position in football. He’ll likely get the opportunity at redemption in an increasingly difficult division to project. Come September, the rest of the AFC North will feature three talented quarterbacks age 25 or younger, a stark contrast to the 38-year-old Roethlisberger coming off elbow surgery. Coupled with an offensive line that’s beginning to show serious signs of wear and tear, the window of opportunity is closing quickly.
Around the NFL
There were minor seeding adjustments here and there, but the most surprising shift of the day occurred in New England. With only a single win standing in the way of their 10th consecutive 1st round bye, the Patriots were shocked at home by the Miami Dolphins 27 – 24. Quarterback Tom Brady was all over the place in this one, completing just 16 passes. With the loss, the Patriots will be without a first round playoff bye for the first time this decade—it’s yet another testament to their dominance. The Patriots are still the Patriots, but not securing an extra week of rest for the 42-year-old Brady is not ideal.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs sneak into the 2nd bye spot at the Patriot’s expense. They’ve had some rocky moments this year but are peaking at the right time on a six-game win streak. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has the offense clicking, but it’s the defense that’s really been rounding into form over the second half of the season. They’ve outscored their opponents 167 – 69 over that six-game stretch.
There were a couple noteworthy stats on the season worth discussing as the season comes to a close. This column has discussed the race to the NFC East title seemingly every week this year, and it was Philadelphia who eventually emerged over the Cowboys. The Eagles are completely mangled going into round one, with budding star running back Miles Sanders potentially lost to an ankle injury in their playoff clinching 34 – 17 win over the Giants. It’s remarkable a team with as many injuries they’ve suffered is in the playoffs. It’s more remarkable when you consider quarterback Carson Wentz became the first in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards without a single 500-yard receiver. How that’s even possible is beyond me.
Also remarkable for all the wrong reasons is the one-man fraternity Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston formed on Sunday. There’s a lot to unpack here, so bear with me: for starters, Winston surpassed the 5,000 yard mark on the year, joining the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, among others. In overtime, the Falcons intercepted him and returned it for a touchdown, with a final score of 28 – 22. The interception-turned-touchdown was Winston’s seventh pick-six of the season, the highest in league history. The interception was Winston’s 30th of the season, marking the first ever 30-touchdown, 30-interception quarterback. For reference, fellow NFC South quarterback Drew Brees has thrown four interceptions this season.
Best of luck to all teams this year, and thanks to all who followed along with me. This writer is predicting a high-octane Super Bowl featuring Kansas City and New Orleans, with the Saints coming out on top.