NEW ORLEANS -- They began the day with their hands firmly on the steering wheel. Win their final two games and a playoff berth was guaranteed. However, on Sunday, in a game that was a microcosm of their season, the erratic Pittsburgh Steelers lost their grip on the future. They fell 31-28 to the New Orleans Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and now need help from other clubs in next Sunday's regular-season finales to reach the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year.
The role of scoreboard-watcher is nothing new to the Steelers. Twice in the past five seasons, they've been in that position, the outcome working in their favor in 2015 but against them in 2013. So while this is unwanted territory, it is not unfamiliar. But that didn't make their frustration any less obvious Sunday evening. Instead of grousing about questionable calls by the officials, they turned to the nearest mirror to find their culprits for this predicament.
"We made the bed, we'll lay in it," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I would expect us to lay in it very well and perform. We'll control what it is that we can control, and that's our preparation and play next week (against the visiting Bengals). All other things that are out of our control, we won't worry much about that. Like everyone else, we've had 15 opportunities to this point to state a case for ourselves, so we won't lament about our position."
The hardest part for the Steelers is that they've been unable to find a rhythm this season. They started 1-2-1 while dealing with constant questions about the absence of unsigned running back Le'Veon Bell, won six in a row to gain control of the division, and then lost three winnable games -- surrendering the final 14 points in a 24-17 loss to Denver, squandering a 16-point halftime lead in a 33-30 defeat to the Chargers, then yielding a game-deciding 75-yard touchdown drive to the woeful Raiders in the final minutes.
Win any of those and the Steelers would still be the fourth seed in the playoffs and leading the AFC North, but they now are a half game behind the surging Ravens, who can clinch the division with a home victory over the Browns. The Steelers can still get in, but every scenario requires a victory by them and a loss/tie by someone (or multiple someones) else.
For me, no team has been harder to get a line on than the Steelers (8-6-1). They are talented enough to beat anyone (SEE: games vs. Baltimoreand New England), but erratic enough to lose to anyone (SEE: games against the Raiders and Broncos). They are the team you don't want to see in the playoffs, and the team you most want to see. On Sunday, they were both.
They were dominant offensively for long stretches, producing touchdown drives in the second and third quarters of 97, 75 and 66 yards -- a significant feat against a defense that had not allowed more than 17 points in six consecutive games. And on defense, they had stretches where they stymied an offense that was averaging 38 points a game at home.
But as has been the case this season, the Steelers found a way to lose a winnable game. They surrendered two fourth-quarter fumbles in field-goal range, the last by JuJu Smith-Schuster at the New Orleans 34-yard line in the final minute. Smith-Schuster, who finished with 11 catches for 115 yards despite playing with a groin injury, deserved better than to lose a fumble. In a perfect world, he would have rested and healed. But he wanted to be there for his teammates.
"This feeling sucks," he said. "I've never felt this feeling before, and it's tough to go out like that. I was just trying to get down and couldn't get down. They made a good play."
The game is sure to bring out the critics of Tomlin. They will criticize him for not challenging whether an incompletion to Saints wideout Michael Thomas was actually a fumble. They will second-guess his decision to call a fake punt in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 42, giving the Saints a short field that resulted in the decisive 1-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Thomas.
But those were not the reason the Steelers lost. The reason is that they made key mistakes at critical moments. And truthfully, if Steelers fans think they're better off without Tomlin -- who isn't going anywhere, by the way -- they need a reality check. He has taken them to two Super Bowls and never had a losing season in 12 years. I know of no other active coach whose career began with 12 consecutive seasons of .500 or better, two Super Bowl appearances and one championship.
That said, this will be looked at as a season of missed opportunities if the Steelers fail to reach the playoffs.
"You have to look at it that way," guard Ramon Foster said. "It was right there in front of us the whole time."
"We've been in situations like this before, but we usually come back and get the points we need," said Burns. "Today we just didn't."
The Saints (13-2) locked up home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs -- but showed some vulnerabilities in doing so. The Steelers riddled their secondary, with Ben Roethlisberger completing 33 of 50 attempts for 380 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Antonio Brown had 14 receptions for 185 yards and two scores. Some of that was guys being beaten, but there also were miscommunication issues. New Orleans will have to address that before the playoffs.
"The situation we're in," Foster said," we caused it."