Steelers Deserve Playoff Berth but Live and Die with Ben Roethlisberger

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 3, 2016

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws an 8-yard touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
David Richard/Associated Press

After losing to the Baltimore Ravens in shocking fashion a week ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers' chances of making the postseason looked pretty bleak as 2016 dawned.

Thanks to the combination of the Steelers' 28-12 win over the hapless Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets' 22-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills, that future has brightened considerably.

The Steelers are in as the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

It's a No. 6 seed that could advance them all the way to Super Bowl 50 or be gone in a hurry a week from now—depending on how far quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes the team.

There's more than one reason why the Steelers will now be forced to rely on Roethlisberger more than ever in the Wild Card Round.

For starters, as John Clayton of ESPN tweeted, Sunday's win over the Browns came at a price:

DeAngelo Williams, 32, who came from nowhere to post his best season since 2009 in place of the first-suspended and now-injured Le'Veon Bell, needed 101 yards to reach 1,000 on the season.

Instead, Williams wound up in a walking boot:

Once Williams left, so did the Pittsburgh run game. Second-year pro Fitzgerald Toussaint managed all of 24 yards on 12 carries against a Cleveland "defense" that entered Week 17 allowing 135 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards a carry.

That ain't good, folks, and it isn't getting any easier against one of the conference's best defenses next weekend in Cincinnati.

Given the Steelers' inability to run the ball, it's hardly a surprise that Roethlisberger threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns—or that wide receiver Antonio Brown had a huge game. He reeled in 13 passes for 187 yards and a score.

However, those numbers don't tell the whole story. And it's a story with some dark undertones.

Just as in last week's loss, the Steelers continued shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers. There was a lost fumble by Brown and two more interceptions by Big Ben, including this throw that he never should have made, as Roethlisberger stared down his target far too long:

That pair of picks brought Roethlisberger to 16 on the season (in 12 games), the 12-year veteran's most since tossing 23 all the way back in 2006.

Head coach Mike Tomlin admitted to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Roethlisberger's turnovers have been an issue for the team in 2015:

We are 0-5 when we lose the turnover battle in football games. Conversely, we are 9-1 when we win or tie in the turnover ratio. That’s been a very bright line for us. We know it is something that we are very cognizant of. That’s why we have to do a great job of taking care of the football and work extremely hard to get the ball.

Yes, Pittsburgh won the turnover battle Sunday (the "Clowns" committed four), but next week, Pittsburgh won't be playing a tomato can.

And if you were entertaining the thought that Pittsburgh's once-vaunted "Steel Curtain" or "Blitzburgh" defense could help bail out Big Ben, forget it. That curtain is made of chiffon now.

Yes, the Steelers held the Austin Davis-led Browns out of the end zone. But these were the, um, Austin Davis-led Browns. And even then, Cleveland managed 22 first downs, six more than Pittsburgh.

The Steelers defensively are what they are: 23rd in total defense entering the season's final weekend, 30th against the pass and 11th in scoring defense. Not horrible (OK, maybe against the pass), but not great by any stretch, either.

Against arguably the league's worst team in Cleveland?

The league's fourth-ranked pass rush was able to tee off and get after it. But against its AFC North neighbors in Cincinnati, the sledding is going to be a lot tougher a week from now.

And that leaves Roethlisberger to carry the day, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding:

Make no mistake. It would be a folly to count this Steelers team out. After all, this is the same squad that recently beat the Bengals and Broncos in back-to-back weeks.

And last I checked, Roethlisberger and the Steelers have some experience in making deep playoff runs as the sixth seed. Something about Super Bowl XL, I think.

But this is also the same Steelers squad that lost to New England, Kansas City and Cincinnati: games in which Pittsburgh's combined turnover ratio was minus-five.

It's simple, really. Roethlisberger is a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback with, perhaps, the NFL's best wideout (Brown) at his disposal. He's capable of putting the team on his back and carrying it far into January.

February, even.

But if turnovers are the kiss of death in football, they are doubly so in the playoffs. Every possession—every snap—is critical.

And if Roethlisberger continues completing passes to the guys in the wrong-color helmets, the Cinderella Steelers won't be at the ball very long.


Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.


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