The Pittsburgh Steelers can be confusing, but in the best way possible. Their brand of offensive confusion in 2016 has led to mounting production from dynamic weapons, 10 wins and an AFC North division title sealed with a dramatic 31-27 Christmas night win over the Baltimore Ravens.
The game, much like the Steelers' season overall, had its share of knee-shaking offensive explosions. But also much like the Steelers' season overall, there was plenty of puzzling silence, too.
Which is why as the bubbly starts flowing with Pittsburgh celebrating its fifth division title over the past decade, the time feels right to use this game as a case study to ask a larger playoff question.
Can what we saw Sunday—the continued brilliance from running back Le'Veon Bell that anchored the Steelers offensively and the late-game heroics from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown—carry the Steelers deep into playoffs and make them a threat to the New England Patriots?
The Patriots should be worried about the Steelers, as they pose a legitimate problem. But that lingering sense of confusion creeps back in whenever there's a thought about elevating the Steelers to another tier.
It hovers, and it's almost annoying. A team that's won six straight games while averaging 26.3 points per game during that stretch shouldn't have much doubt attached to it. There's an element of home run swinging to the 2016 Steelers, though, and when they whiff, the ending could be disastrous.
Just as it almost was Sunday. Consider, for example, the split in Roethlisberger's passing yards:
|Big Ben's slow first half and wild second|
After their opening-drive touchdown, the Steelers offense was woefully stagnant, and it didn't wake up from its winter slumber until three quarters later. But the offense then went from the deepest, most restful sleep to the energetic morning person no one wants in their lives.
That's the beauty of an offense loaded with several athletically gifted pass-catchers and a running back whose patience and vision is simply unfair. Everything can seem like it's crumbling for much of the game, and that descent into chaos can even be lowlighted by two Roethlisberger interceptions deep in his own territory.
Then suddenly a switch is flicked, and nitro boosters are engaged.
Roethlisberger led three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. On just those three drives alone he passed for 164 yards. The Steelers needed to cover 75 yards on two of those drives and 90 yards for the third. The latter was the most impressive, as the drive took the Steelers only six plays and two minutes, 49 seconds of the game clock.
The fourth quarter orchestrated by Roethlisberger and capped by Brown's reaching, division-sealing touchdown was a shining example of what happens when the Steelers' offensive torch is suddenly lit.
The concern, however, is the silence and how long it can last.
Brown surged in the fourth quarter too and eventually finished with 96 yards and that touchdown. But only seven of his yards came before halftime, which was the peak of a dull stretch for one of the league's marquee talents. He averaged 63.3 receiving yards over the Steelers' previous three games heading in to Week 16, a pedestrian total for Brown's high standards.
Then there's Roethlisberger, whose late-game superman act was necessary because of his wayward throws that landed in the hands of defenders. Roethlisberger showed poor vision and worse ball placement on both of his interceptions.
Lately, the Steelers have been forced to overcome plenty of his mistakes while keeping their winning streak alive. Roethlisberger has thrown six interceptions over Pittsburgh's last four games, which is nearly half of his season total (13).
But all those concerns—Brown's inconsistent involvement, Roethlisberger's misfires and an offense that sputters for a while before igniting—can melt away because of one constant: Bell.
As bodies swirl around him, Bell is always calm and waiting. His patience is only matched by, say, anyone who tried to download a song years ago using dial-up internet. (Yes, the phone was once used for your internet needs.) He waits, waits some more, waits just a little longer and then pounces, blasting through the crease that eventually emerges.
That's how against the Ravens he logged his fifth game in 2016 with 120-plus rushing yards (finishing with 122 rushing yards on 20 carries, and 137 yards from scrimmage). Even more impressively and absurdly, Bell played in his 12th game of the season Sunday, and in 11 of them, he's recorded 100-plus yards from scrimmage.
He's the central figure who gives the Steelers offensive life when it needs it most. And because of that, he's also the reason Pittsburgh could disrupt an AFC playoff bracket that will likely run through New England.
With a win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 17, the Patriots will clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Patriots haven't lost a home playoff game since 2012 and are 15-3 overall in Foxborough during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
That means history is a mighty foe for any team that travels to the frosty North in January. But the Steelers might have the right counterpunch in the unwelcoming cold-weather conditions:
|Patriots defense against current top 5 RBs in 2016|
|Running back||Yards from scrimmage|
|David Johnson (Week 1)||132|
|Le'Veon Bell (Week 7)||149|
|LeSean McCoy (Week 4)||108|
That table doesn't feature the Dolphins' Jay Ajayi, who is among the top five in rushing but wasn't a starting running back yet in Week 2. And it also doesn't include a second game against the Bills' LeSean McCoy, because he was injured in Week 8.
The Patriots defense ranks third against the run, allowing an average of 89.5 rushing yards per game. But it hasn't been challenged often by runners on Bell's level, the sort of running backs who can do a lot more than just pound away after taking handoffs.
Bell himself posted 149 yards on the Patriots during a game when Roethlisberger didn't start while dealing with a knee issue. The key play to swing the game was a 37-yard catch by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has since suffered a season-ending injury.
There was no margin for error in that game. There won't be one going forward either against the Patriots or any other high-caliber competition the AFC has to offer. That's unsettling for a Steelers team making a habit of committing unforced mistakes and disappearing for long stretches.
But if Bell is its one stable force, then there's always a chance to rise—and keep rising.