A slow first half of the season plus a heated AFC wild-card race left the Pittsburgh Steelers with no margin for error headed into Week 16. They shouldn't have needed that margin of error, though—not in control of their own playoff destiny and having an outside shot at the AFC North, and especially not against a 4–10 Ravens team starting its fourth QB of the season—ex-Texan Ryan Mallett.
Instead, the Steelers will head into their Week 17 matchup against the Browns in need of a win and some help, thanks to a surprisingly lifeless performance in a 20–17 loss. The Steelers now must win next Sunday and hope that the Bills knock off the Jets or that the Broncos go 0–2 in Weeks 16 and 17. Kansas City clinched a wild-card berth on Baltimore's win, so that is the lone scenario left which sends the Steelers to the playoffs.
For whatever reason, the Steelers came out with a conservative game plan in Baltimore, despite being armed with what has been the league's most explosive passing attack of late. They ran the ball on six of seven plays during their opening possession, including a fourth-and-one from the Ravens' 25 that was stuffed for no gain. That game plan stayed more or less in place until late in the third quarter, when Pittsburgh found itself down 10. But even then, a turn back to the wide-open, Ben Roethlisberger-led passing attack was a chore.
Where was the high-flying Pittsburgh attack that had averaged 35 points over its past six games? Where was the passing game that shredded Denver's outstanding defense in the second half last week? Where was the energy? The creativity? Wherever those things were, the Steelers didn't bring them to Baltimore.
Roethlisberger often found himself at the heart of the problems, another unexpected development as the Ravens' victory played out. While his offensive line struggled (three sacks allowed, plus countless pressures), Roethlisberger never found much of a groove against Baltimore's defense. He also could not dial up any deep balls—Pittsburgh's longest pass play was a 29-yard interference call; the longest completion went for 27 yards.
So, give some credit to the Ravens here, as well. They had nothing but pride to play for Sunday, behind a quarterback just added to the roster in recent weeks. Just as they did in knocking off Pittsburgh back in Week 4, though, the Ravens generated enough plays to get the victory.
Mallett was the offensive star Sunday. Content to live with short routes, he threw for 274 yards and a touchdown on 28-of-41 passing. Mallett did stretch the field a bit for his best ball of the day: a 39-yard dart between defenders to Chris Givens, setting up a critical late touchdown.
The Steelers' defense was almost as humdrum as the offense, surrendering 386 yards (121 rushing) and allowing Baltimore to post a 9-of-18 mark on third downs.
Of course, that defense also put Roethlisberger and the offense in position to steal a win. The Steelers had two chances to take the lead in the third quarter—those drives resulted in a punt and interceptions, respectively. Baltimore later stuffed Pittsburgh's final chance, which came with still 2:55 on the clock in a three-point game. On that possession, the Steelers moved to their own 42 but eventually turned it over on downs on fourth-and-15.
The ramifications of this loss loom large as Week 17 approaches, which is the harsh reality for a team that many had pegged as a strong contender to run the AFC postseason table. It's also fair given the egg Pittsburgh laid on Sunday. Quite frankly, there was no excuse for the performance the Steelers turned in, in such a colossal moment.
Kansas City was far from perfect on Sunday, but it managed to hold off Cleveland. The Jets took care of business (eventually), taking the ball first and marching for an overtime score to drop AFC East champion New England. Neither result would have mattered much from the Steelers' perspective had they been able to handle their own business in Baltimore.
They failed to do so, with ample help from a Ravens team that deserves a ton of credit for its effort. Should the Steelers miss the playoffs, they'll have only themselves to blame.