ARLINGTON, Texas – For the past few weeks, the Steelers have been preaching about how the playoffs have already begun for them.
Now, having lost four of their past five games, that statement rings even more true.
At 7-7 coming off Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss at Dallas, the Steelers are on the outside looking in on the AFC playoffs.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is the Steelers still have an opportunity to do something about that in the final two weeks.
The Steelers would earn a playoff spot with victories in their final two games, clinching no worse than a wildcard spot because Baltimore (9-5) has stumbled down the stretch. The Ravens have lost their last three games, which put the division championship back in play.
If the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens finish in a three-way tie at 9-7, the Steelers would win the AFC North based on a better head-to-head record (3-1) against Cincinnati and Baltimore.
Of course, the Steelers need to beat the Bengals (8-6) Sunday to make that a possibility.
“We just have to keep our nose to the ground, keep preparing,” said tight end Heath Miller, who caught seven passes for 92 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys. “I think we still have a chance to right our wrongs here. We’ve got two games left. We just have to keep chipping away at it.”
The Steelers, who are 4-4 in games decided by four points or less this season, could start by cutting down on turnovers.
After committing just seven turnovers in their first eight games, the Steelers had 20 in their past six. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh is 2-4 in those games.
It’s not just the turnovers, but when those turnovers are happening that is hurting this team.
On Sunday, leading 24-17 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the banged up defense forced Dallas to punt. Antonio Brown fielded the ball at the Pittsburgh 16 and was running up the sideline when linebacker Victor Butler reached out with one hand and popped the ball loose at the 38. Dallas recovered at the Pittsburgh 44, and seven plays later, DeMarco Murray scored from three yards out on a run to tie the game, 24-24.
Then, on the second play of the overtime period, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted by Brandon Carr, who returned the ball to the Pittsburgh 1 to set up the game-winning field goal.
The two turnovers led to 10 points for the Cowboys, giving opponents 101 points off Pittsburgh’s 27 turnovers. In contrast, the Steelers have forced just 13 turnovers and scored 41 points off of those miscues.
“Really, it’s simple, (we’re) just not (making) enough of the critical plays in the waning moments of football games to seize opportunities,” said head coach Mike Tomlin.
Injuries have played at part, but so has a lack of turnovers forced by the Pittsburgh defense.
Though the Steelers still lead the league in total defense, despite allowing a season-high 415 yards to the Cowboys. Pittsburgh has forced just 28 turnovers in its past 30 regular season games.
The defense could get a boost this week from the return of cornerback Ike Taylor, who missed the past two games with a hairline fracture in his ankle. Taylor and No. 3 corner Cortez Allen sat out against the Cowboys, while Keenan Lewis, the other starting corner, left in the fourth quarter after breaking up a pass in the end zone.
Lewis, who suffered a hip injury, is expected to play against the Bengals.
The Steelers need all the healthy bodies they can get to win their final two games.
If that happens, they won’t apologize for backing in.
“We are fortunate, but we won those games to be in it,” said nose tackle Casey Hampton. “It is not a fortunate league, you know what I mean? We did enough to win enough games to put ourselves in a position to be where we are. And we have to play better and try to get this next one.”
Odds and end zones
Running back Rashard Mendenhall, who was suspended last week for conduct detrimental to the team, was reinstated Monday. The Steelers have until 4 p.m. today to make a roster move to free a spot for the running back. ... Rookie right tackle Mike Adams, who missed the past three games with a sprained ankle, could return this week. ... Dallas had 328 passing yards, the most against the Steelers in three seasons, breaking their NFL-best streak of 37 consecutive games without allowing a 300-yard passer.