The Dream Fades
The wheels are coming off, but the ride’s not over quite yet.
Against a five-win team without postseason aspirations, the Steelers fell one score short for the second consecutive week. It was an afternoon filled with failure after failure to capitalize on golden opportunities. Despite the defense keeping the Jets to within a single score for most of the afternoon, the offense was completely shut out over the final two quarters in their 16 – 10 loss.
The problematic quarterback play was once again the sore spot on Sunday. The final chapter is coming to a close of whatever is left of the feel-good story that’s been quarterback Duck Hodges. That’s six interceptions and one touchdown over the last two games to go along with seven sacks.
After Hodges’ second interception, Mason Rudolph got a chance at redemption—it wouldn’t take long for him to make his mark. After the first drive stalled out, the second would lead to a 49-yard field goal to cut the deficit to seven.
Thanks to yet another game-changing play by linebacker T.J. Watt, the offense was afforded an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. On a short field with less than 30 seconds to go before the half, Rudolph took full advantage. The man has certainly had his ups and downs, but his 29-yard touchdown to receiver Diontae Johnson may have been the best throw we’ve seen to date. It’s those kind of throws that will have fans optimistic for progress during the offseason.
While it would have been poetic for a guy named Rudolph to lead a comeback win three days before Christmas, it wasn’t to be. He would eventually leave the game after landing awkwardly on his shoulder in the third quarter. Hodges was unable to take over the reins, and the offense fell back into disrepair as both running back James Conner and center Maurkice Pouncey would leave the game.
There were a couple bright spots on offense. After a rocky rookie season, receiver James Washington has been a solid target for whoever’s under center. He’s caught 30 balls over his last six games, having caught only 14 all games prior. It was a ticky-tacky call, but he also drew the pass interference penalty that got the Steelers back to within striking distance towards the end. While he won’t get to 1,000 yards in his sophomore campaign, Washington can hang his hat on leading the team in receiving after a lot of people questioned him coming into the year. Rookie Diontae Johnson is putting the finishing touches on a similarly impressive campaign; in an extremely talented class, Johnson sits at number six in yards among rookie receivers. Considering the lack of firepower at quarterback, his 626 yards is an impressive feat for a first-year.
On the flipside, two faces of the franchise are wishing this season would hurry up and end. Much was expected out of the third year guys, but James Conner and Ju Ju Smith-Schuster have been wholly unable to correct their course. Injuries have kept them from contributing late in the season, and the city is starting to hone in on their shortcomings. Smith-Schuster was particularly ineffective in his first game back since his knee injury in Cleveland. He has come under fire for not coming down with the Hodges desperation throw on their final play of the game. Catchable or not, the loss does not fall on his on his shoulders.
For the first time this season, the fate of the Steelers postseason is no longer up to them. The playoff scenarios are plentiful, but beating the Ravens in week 17 is the only thing left they can control. It’s a disappointing development for a team that’s defied long odds, but hope still lingers. Hodges will get another chance to reenergize the magic that made him a household name against a Ravens team resting most of their starters. The rest of it will simply have to fall into place.
Around the NFL
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, there’s plenty of jockeying for playoff position amongst the rest of the league. The long story short: get ready to cheer hard for the Chargers and the Texans.
The top of the AFC is locked, and it belongs to the Ravens for the first time in team history. They’ll get a 1st round bye, as will one of Kansas City or New England. Stranger things have happened, but the Dolphins beating the Patriots at Foxboro seems unlikely. Should the Dolphins upset, the Chiefs can lock that bye up with a win over the San Diego Chargers.
The Steelers playoff hopes rest with the Texans beating the Titans. At this point, Houston would only care to win if there is a better playoff seeding opportunity, and that can only be achieved at Kansas City’s expense. Should the Chiefs lose to San Diego, Pittsburgh will collectively join together to become a satellite Houston Texan fan club for a day. The Titans must lose if the Steelers want to play in the postseason.
Over in the NFC, the top spot is still there for the taking. The 49ers have a tall task awaiting in their matchup with Seattle, but can clinch a first round bye with a win. The Saints and the Packers will be fighting for the remaining bye.
At the bottom of the NFC, there will be only one team on the outside looking in. The Dallas Cowboys are in the middle of a complete freefall, having lost four of their last five after opening the season 3 – 0. Their 17 – 9 loss to a completely depleted Philadelphia team not only relinquishes control of their division, but also their own playoff hopes. With the Eagles now atop the division, they’ll will need a Philly loss to the Giants, as well as a win of their own against Washington. The chips are stacked against Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who will likely be looking for employee should this unlikely scenario not play out.