Friday November 25th, 2016

At times, the Steelers’ 28–7 win over the Colts on Thanksgiving night felt like a microcosm of what has thus far been a frustratingly uneven season for a team that still has visions of a Super Bowl run. They start off looking as though nobody has a chance at ever stopping them, with three straight touchdown drives. Then, they’re forced to punt twice in a row to start the second half and their defense allows their opponent to stick around, the game feeling closer than it should be. And then, things swing back, and they firmly reclaim control, their defense making some big plays and their offense putting the game far out of reach.

Thursday night was the latest up in a season of ups and downs for the Steelers. But will they be able to avoid taking another tumble as their season heads into the homestretch?

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That’s the great unknown. The flaws are there, even if they’re disguised by what was a pretty happy holiday for the Steelers and their fans. They beat the Colts by 21 points in Indianapolis. They put up 369 yards of total offense and the quarterback and receiver tandem that they are undoubtedly quite grateful for, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, connected for three touchdowns. They improved their record to 6–5 and as a result leapfrogged over the Ravens and into first place in the AFC North. And yet, it’s at times difficult to look at the Steelers and see a true Super Bowl contender.

Their defense leaves a lot to be desired, even on a night when it forced two impressive and crucial goal line stands that ended up being the difference makers (two incomplete passes). The Colts backup quarterback, Scott Tolzien, playing in relief of a concussed Andrew Luck, played perfectly fine, if not well, throughout most of the game. He finished 22/36 for 205 yards and a touchdown, and those numbers would have been a lot higher if not for multiple inexcusable drops from his receivers.

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The Colts finished with 310 yards, only 59 fewer than the Steelers, and won the battle of time of possession, 31:45 to Pittsburgh’s 28:15. Of course, none of that matters when Indy only managed to score seven points, but the point remains that allowing a Tolzien-led offense to remain in the game—and don’t be fooled by the final box score, the Colts were in it throughout most of the third quarter—is not going to cut it if this team expects to make a deep playoff run.

But then again, when that offense clicks—when Roethlisberger is 14/20 for 221 and Brown has three touchdowns and Le’Veon Bell runs for 120 yards—and when Ladarius Green and Eli Rogers are contributing with big plays of their own—it’s difficult to look at Pittsburgh and not see a huge threat in the postseason, should they get there. Such is the conundrum of the 2016 Steelers: They are simultaneously too flawed to be truly great, but too talented to be truly crippled by those flaws.

That said, it’s not too hard to look unstoppable against the Colts’ dreadful defense. They are the 30th ranked unit in the league, and it showed tonight. Indy can’t blame this one on Tolzien, who, despite throwing a couple of picks, kept them in the game to the best of his abilities. But the quarterback has never been the problem for the Colts. They had a shot to gain ground on the Texans in the AFC South, but instead delivered missed opportunity after missed opportunity. In a battle between two promising AFC teams that have disappointed throughout the 2016 season, the Steelers were the ones who look like they’ll still be playing come January.

Next week, Pittsburgh will play the Giants, and that battle with a playoff-caliber team will be illuminating, as Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. have the potential to keep up with the Steelers’ own explosive offense. We’ve already seen Pittsburgh deliver in a thrilling loss to the Cowboys a couple of weeks back. If the defense can build on those big goal line stands from this Thanksgiving win, and consistently provide the proper support to the offense, then this team will begin looking like a balanced team with the potential to go as far as many assumed it would at the beginning of the season. And that’s bad news for the rest of the league.

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