Steelers Are NFL's True Playoff Wild Card: Flawed but Can Beat Anyone

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 17, 2018

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 16: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers smiles as he looks on in the fourth quarter during the game against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on December 16, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are far from perfect. In fact, they are extremely flawed.

As we've covered previously this season, they can't be trusted. They are mistake-prone. They alternate from brilliant to sloppy to trash—sometimes in the same quarter.        

But here's the thing: For all of that, they are also still good. At times, really good. At times, wonderfully good.

Their 17-10 win over the Patriots on Sunday showed the Steelers in all their glory: a deep roster, big-play capable. Yes, with blemishes all over the place (a three-legged pony and a kicking tee would be better than Pittsburgh's field-goal kicker now) but still able to win a big game.

More than anything, it showed that if the Steelers make the postseason—and they likely will—they could beat any team.

We also know, of course, that they could lose to anyone. Depends on how much their heads are into the game or how they are feeling on any particular day. Or even any particular half. 

This is an average, wonderful, talented, terrible, great, not great, flawed, excellent team. Take your pick of any one of those things, and it might be what you see from this team if/when it makes the playoffs—or any three of them, or all of them, at the same time.

"Will the real Pittsburgh Steelers please stand up?" asked ESPN analyst Ryan Clark on SportsCenter after the game. "Please show us who you are in these last two weeks, because I'm extremely confused."

They are good, bad and everything in between.

This was a huge win for the Steelers. A loss would have meant four straight and a big chance of staying home for the playoffs. Yes, they beat a decaying Patriots franchise in the twilight of dynastic greatness—handed it back-to-back losses in December for the first time since 2002—but it doesn't matter. That's Bill Belichick they beat. That's Tom Brady they beat. They took advantage of a slowed and aging Rob Gronkowski, but so what. You beat the team that's in front of you.

Don Wright/Associated Press

And by beating the Patriots, the Steelers made a strong statement both to themselves and the rest of the league: We're not perfect, but you will still have to deal with us.

Brady had won five straight against Pittsburgh and six of his past seven. He entered this game 8-2 against Ben Roethlisberger. So yes, this win is a big deal.

One of the reasons the Steelers can be so good, and also so frustratingly unpredictable, is what's turning out to be remarkable depth. They are one of the deepest teams in football. They don't have Le'Veon Bell. So what? His replacement, James Conner, became one of the best rushers in football. Then Conner went down with a sprained ankle. So what, again?

It hurt them initially. But it also cleared the way for Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick from the 2018 draft who sounds like a character who saves humanity from killer machines in an apocalyptic future and whose previous biggest football moment was being named MVP of the 2016 Independence Bowl.

Yet here was Samuels, rushing for 142 yards on 19 carries against a Bill Belichick defense. It's a testament to the offensive line and the Steelers scouting department—to the depth of talent they have. That's not to say the Steelers didn't have their typical moments.

Don Wright/Associated Press

They didn't know how to handle the Patriots' morphing amoeba defense, in which there are rarely down defensive linemen and the pressure comes from everywhere. They were sometimes confused by the Patriots' quick snaps on short yardage. Chris Hogan's 63-yard touchdown happened because of mass confusion in the Pittsburgh secondary. On one Julian Edelman catch, two Steelers ran into each other. Chris Boswell continued to struggle (he has missed seven of 18 kicks and five extra points). 

But then, that defense tightened up, intercepting Brady and stopping him late. Roethlisberger threw two picks but made a number of critical throws. Samuels kept the ball moving. Boswell's 48-yard kick gave the Steelers their seven-point lead with under three minutes left.

They beat their nemesis in the Patriots. It wasn't pretty, but they did it.

Can the Steelers be trusted? No. They're too flawed in too many ways.

But they also can't be overlooked. They're also scary. Because they do find ways to overcome those flaws, again and again.

Unless they don't. Depends on the time of day, you know? 

        

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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