Time and time again, the Steelers have found ways to pull victories out of thin air. Pittsburgh tipped their hand in Week 1 — playing an alarmingly tight game with the Cleveland Browns. Many thought the 21-18 defeat signified the Browns turning a new leaf, though their current 0-13 record says otherwise.
In Week 6, the Steelers traveled to Kansas City to play the then-hottest team in the league. The Chiefs entered the contest with an undefeated record and the NFL’s top offense. Alex Smith and company were coming off of a game in which they put up 42 points the week prior. In the game, Pittsburgh’s stout defense held the Chiefs to just 13 points — thus leading to the first blemish on Kansas City’s record.
Though the Chiefs went on a four-game losing streak, you can’t blame the Steelers for Kansas City’s downward spiral. Pittsburgh can only play the teams on their schedule. Their next roadblock came two weeks later in the form of the Detroit Lions. The Steelers ended up taking home a 20-15 win on the back of rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster’s career day (193 receiving yards). An egregious fumble by Golden Tate on the end of a long catch-and-run, and two failed red-zone attempts in the second half ultimately did the Lions in.
Following a bye week, the Steelers would have their third road outing in four games when they traveled to Indianapolis to face off with the Colts. On paper, this game shouldn’t have been close — though the Colts came out swinging and held a 17-3 lead in the second half. Indy entered the match-up having played for nine-consecutive weeks, while Pittsburgh had 13 days to prepare for a Jacoby Brissett-led offense.
— NFL France (@FirstDownFR) October 30, 2017
It wasn’t the Steelers’ prettiest of wins (20-17), but they pulled out a last-second victory on the foot of kicker Chris Boswell.
Perhaps all of these close games against inferior competition were caused by the Steelers playing on the road. Heinz Field has harbored one of the best home-field advantages in all of sports since it opened in 2001. The Steelers have had a winning record (five or more wins) in home games every year of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. They’re 5-1 in such games this year, but it hasn’t always been easy.
Pittsburgh’s lauded defense has been lit up in their last two home outings. The first offensive exhibition was put on by Packers backup quarterback Brett Hundley — as the former UCLA Bruin accumulated three touchdowns against the Steelers in Week 12.
Green Bay had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Big Ben connected with Antonio Brown for 37 yards on just two plays to put Boswell in range for the game-winning field goal as time expired. A common practice when playing the Steelers should probably be to defend Roethlisberger’s favorite target in the game’s most crucial moments. Just spit balling here, though.
And then, there was this week. Look, I get it. The Ravens and Steelers always play close games. Pittsburgh has a star-studded offense that can score a lot of points. Via the transitive property, the Ravens were also going to have to score a lot of points.
Baltimore is actually a respectable fifth in the AFC in total points scored, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. This simply isn’t a good offensive team. Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco is averaging 5.7 yards per attempt — which makes him 35th out of 35 qualified QB’s this year. Their top three receivers (Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, Benjamin Watson) were at their best in 2010. Second-year back Alex Collins has been the biggest playmaker, and most of his best games have either come in losses or blowout victories.
That’s why it was so shocking to see the Ravens effortlessly drive up-and-down the field on this Pittsburgh defense. Of course, the Steelers played the game without stud linebacker Ryan Shazier, but this is Flacco we are talking about. The Ravens scout defense probably keeps him in check during practice.
Once again, it was Big Ben and the best RB/WR combo in the league to the rescue. Ben ended the day with 500-plus yards through the air — with 200 of those going to Antonio Brown. Stud RB Le’Veon Bell also reached pay dirt on three separate occasions. The typically stout Ravens defense allowed scores on Pittsburgh’s last four offensive drives. This included yet another game-winning field goal from the league’s newest premier clutch kicker in Boswell.
[Highlight] Antonio Brown puts the Steelers in FG range pic.twitter.com/PNF1IHNWNt
— TheRenderNFL (@TheRenderNFL) December 11, 2017
The Steelers are now 11-2. With that said, what do we make of this team? Although they’ve slipped a bit without Shazier, the defense is sixth in yards allowed and seventh in opponent scoring over the season. Their star-studded offensive trio are individually leading the league in passing, rushing, and receiving yards. For all intents and purposes, they look like the juggernaut that their 11-2 record suggests they are.
Still, something is off. In four of the last five weeks, the Steelers have needed game-winning field goals from Boswell to defeat Flacco, Hundley, Brissett, and Andy Dalton. Pittsburgh has just a +69 point differential on the season, which is ninth in the league (placing them lower than 7-6 teams like the Ravens and Chargers). Their standing in this category is to be expected with all of the close games they’ve been playing in.
It’s easy to dismiss this stat and overstate the importance of coming out on top in close games. However, the plus/minus statistic over the season has been a pretty darn good prognosticator of postseason success.
Since 2009, at least one Super Bowl participant led their respective conference in regular season plus-minus. The Patriots and Falcons finished No. 1 and No. 2 last year. The 15-1 Carolina Panthers led the league the year before that. Seattle finished second in both of their Super Bowl years — just behind their AFC opponents (Broncos in 2013, Patriots in 2014) in each season. Being able to dominate lesser opponents means something, and teams that have succeeded in the past have proven that.
Pittsburgh will have a chance to prove their merit when they take on the Patriots in a marquee match-up next week. The game could play a major role in deciding home-field advantage for the AFC Playoffs.
With all of the preceding discussion about plus/minus, the Steelers will take a win any way they can get it versus the Patriots to ensure as many playoff games are played at Heinz Field as possible.
After all, the last AFC team to defeat the Patriots in postseason play was the 2015 Denver Broncos. This team ended the regular season with the league’s 10th-best plus/minus mark.
What helped the Broncos out in that victory? Playing the game in Mile High Stadium.
Sources: Twitter/FirstDownFR, Twitter/TheRenderNFL, Philip G. Pavely/USA TODAY Sports, Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports