Steelers’ playoff hopes iffy after pratfall in Oakland
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged his team’s spotty track record in Oakland before the AFC North leaders headed west last week but added “it’s not a major component of logistical preparation.”
Maybe, but history ended up repeating itself anyway in a 24-21 loss to the team tied with the worst record in the league on Sunday, one who has bailed on this season to build toward the future but found three hours of sustained competence while keeping Pittsburgh winless in Oakland this millennium.
The Steelers (7-5-1) let the Raiders drive the length of the field twice for touchdowns in the fourth quarter, yielding much in the same way they did in the second half of a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers a week earlier.
What seemed like a relatively easy path to a fifth straight playoff berth during a six-game winning streak has become decidedly more perilous.
“You can tell the whole locker room is sick,” safety Sean Davis said. “We’re just going to take it personal. Continue to work. Keep our heads up. We have three more guaranteed (games).”
The only surefire way for Pittsburgh to earn the right to play into January is beat New England — something it’s done just twice in the past 11 meetings — at home next Sunday, then topple NFC-leading New Orleans on the road before finishing up at Heinz Field against Cincinnati, which knows a thing or two about playing spoiler . Last season the Bengals stunned the Ravens on Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd on a fourth-and-12 play with 49 seconds left that sent the Bengals to a 31-27 win that kept Baltimore out of the playoffs and gave the Bills their first postseason appearance since 1999.
“We all need to look in the mirror and figure out what’s going on,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It starts with each individual. We have to look inside first.”
The view might not be particularly pretty at the moment — literally — for Roethlisberger. The 36-year-old spent most of the second half on the bench with an unspecified rib injury only to be forced back into action when the Raiders took the lead with just over five minutes to go. He went a perfect 6 for 6 on the ensuing drive, capping it with a 1-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Roethlisberger — with more than a little help from Smith-Schuster — nearly pulled off a stunner when the Steelers ran a perfectly executed hook-and-lateral on the penultimate snap that put Pittsburgh easily within makeable field goal range for Chris Boswell.
Roethlisberger finished 25 of 29 for 282 yards and two touchdowns, looking so fresh at the end that Tomlin’s explanation that the team stuck with backup Josh Dobbs for four series because the Steelers were “in the flow of the game” seemed baffling.
“I was just waiting for coach to tell me when to go,” said Roethlisberger, who expects to be ready to face the Patriots (9-4).
The handling of Roethlisberger was just one of several ultimately dubious decisions by Tomlin, who opted not to call timeout with the Raiders driving in the final minute to make sure Roethlisberger had plenty of time to work with just in case the Raiders scored.
Tomlin said he trusted his defense, one that has now allowed the game-winning score on long fourth-quarter drives in three successive weeks.
In Denver, the Broncos went 79 yards in 11 plays after a James Conner fumble. The Chargers covered 64 yards in 11 plays to set up a chip-shot field goal as time expired. The Raiders moved 75 yards in eight plays, culminating in Derek Carr’s 6-yard flip to Derek Carrier with 21 seconds to go.
“We didn’t get off the field when we needed to,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “Our offense kept us in the game. Even at the end they were moving the ball. We had a fourth-and-6, you can’t ask for a better opportunity. It’s a team game, but we have to get the stop right there.”
Still, the Steelers had a chance to push it to an extra period only to see Boswell’s nightmarish season take another brutal twist.
A Pro Bowler a year ago during a season in which he made three last-second game-winning kicks, Boswell’s 40-yard attempt on the final play never had a chance. His left leg slipped on the always iffy turf at Oakland Coliseum and the ball smacked off the rear of an offensive lineman in front of him as Pittsburgh remained winless in Oakland since 1995.
Boswell, who signed a contract extension that runs through 2022 in the offseason, has made just 10 of 16 field goals this season. His five missed extra points are also the most by any kicker that started on Sunday.
“I mean it’s definitely a lot of heat on you, but it’s not the first time in my life this has happened,” Boswell said. “I just have to find a way through it.”
Boswell was talking about himself. He might as well have been talking about his team, one whose uneven year could end far sooner than anyone in the locker room anticipated.
“We just have to find a way to get a win,” Heyward said. “I don’t care who can play. It’s unacceptable. You have to find a way to get over the hill, man.”