Given the chance to pull within a game of the division lead (with the Ravens losing to the Washington Redskins) and with a chance to take a game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals (who were busy losing to Dallas), the Steelers looked very bad. The game wasn't as close as the final score, 34-24, would indicate. Much of the Steelers' scoring took place after the game was out of hand.
So, what happened? How did the Steelers come off such a big win to play so poorly, especially with the return of Ben Roethlisberger?
Let's see what we learned on Sunday.
It's an axiom in the NFL that any team can beat any other team. There are no easy games, but certainly some games are easier than others.
Going into Pittsburgh at 5-7 and having lost their last four games (the last two of which were against AFC North teams), the Chargers looked to be primed for a five-game losing streak.
When you consider what was at stake for the Steelers; the possibility of gaining games on the Ravens and Bengals, and still firmly in the playoff hunt; how well they played against the Ravens in Baltimore the week before and that they were getting back their franchise quarterback after he had missed the last two games, one would have thought they would be riding high and ready to roll over the Chargers.
And that is exactly why they play the games.
The Chargers looked to be playing inspired football for most of the day. Their defense kept the Steelers from crossing mid-field until there were only 28 seconds left in the first half. With 2:22 left in the half, the Steelers had a 3rd-and-1. They could not get one yard in two plays and turned the ball over on downs.
Realistically, the surprise was that the Steelers weren't down more at halftime. It was a credit to the defense that it was even a game at all before it got out of hand in the second half.
The lesson here is that teams must not look past their current opponent. Teams always have something to play for.
It could have been much, much worse for the Steelers.
If the Ravens and Bengals had won, the Ravens would have locked up the division and the Bengals would have taken the lead for the sixth playoff spot.
As it was, nothing changed in the AFC North, or in the race for the final tournament spot.
Whatever lucky rabbit's foot Mike Tomlin is rubbing has to have all its fur worn off.
As bad as this loss was—and make no mistake, it was bad—the Steelers still control their own destiny. If they win, they will be in the playoffs. With a little more luck like yesterday, they could still win the division.
They will have to play much better than they did yesterday. The remaining schedule is at Dallas, and then home against the Bengals and the Browns. They are capable of winning those games, but they have to play as if the playoffs are at stake.
They most assuredly are.
The Chargers are one of those teams. So are the Cowboys.
The kind of team I'm referring to is one that you can't predict.
One game, they look like they can win it all and do it with one arm behind their backs. The next game, they look like they have just put on helmets for the first time.
The Steelers have to described as one of those teams, too.
Case in point: Where was the protection that enabled 37-year-old third-stringer Charlie Batch to beat the Ravens? Those same offensive linemen could barely keep players away from Ben Roethlisberger for more than a couple seconds.
It was only because of Ben's otherworldly pocket presence and ability to shift and move in the pocket that he didn't get sacked more than the two times he was. It certainly seemed like he got sacked more often than that.
The Steelers are a very dangerous team when they are playing well. The problem is that they do not play well in every game. If you catch them on a bad day, they can be beaten, and easily.
If I told you Ben Roethlisberger threw for 285 yards for three touchdowns and a pick and Mike Wallace had 112 yards and two touchdowns while the defense held the Chargers to under 300 yards of total offence, would you assume the Steelers won the game?
At the end of the day, that's the problem with stats: They simply do not tell the whole story.
The Steelers had 18 first downs, but that doesn't tell you that at one point they had four straight 3-and-out possessions.
If I told you Phillip Rivers was 21-of-42 for 200 yards, it wouldn't tell you that the Chargers had four drives of more than 10 plays, including a 17-play drive to open the second half that consumed 9:23 of game time.
Any defense facing that kind of sustained offense is going to crack, and the Steelers are no exception.
There are two stats that tell the tale of this game very well, however.
The Chargers possessed the ball for 36:46, while the Steelers had it for only 23:14.
And the Chargers committed no turnovers while scoring 14 points off Steelers miscues.
As I mentioned before, the Steelers have their last away game this week against Dallas and then finish the season at home against Cincinnati and Cleveland.
The game against Dallas is not the "gimme" people might think it is, as the Bengals found out yesterday. It is a dangerous team, and you can bet it will be watching tape of Chargers wideouts Danario Alexander and Michael Spurlock catching out-pattern passes all day agains the Steelers. It seemed like every time the Chargers needed a first down, one of those guys was open.
The Steelers are not a bad defense on third down, allowing opponents to convert only 36.5 percent of their third downs on the year, but they were exposed yesterday, and you can be sure coaches in Dallas, Cincinnati and Cleveland took notice.
Division games are always tough games, and even being at home doesn't guarantee a win in the AFC North. So, the last two games, against a Bengals team that wants to make the playoffs and a Browns team that would love nothing more than to beat their hated rivals and knock them out of the playoffs, will be brutal.
The good news is the Ravens and Bengals don't have it any better. The Ravens have home games against the Manning brothers over the next two weeks before they go to Cincinnati.
The Bengals are at the Eagles, who have to play for pride, if nothing else, next week before they take on the Steelers and the Ravens.
As usual, in the AFC North, it all comes down to the last few games, and the Steelers must win theirs.