Will Steelers be able to slay the Patriots dragon in playoffs?


Sunday’s 34-27 thriller over the Broncos has placed the Steelers in control of their own playoff destiny.

With three consecutive wins against playoff regulars under their belt, it’s becoming clear that the Steelers are going to have to slay the AFC’s dragon in order to return to the Super Bowl.

It’s getting more and more evident, isn’t it?

Over the past three weeks, the Steelers have taken care of three of the AFC’s traditional powers. A beatdown of the Colts, a physical win over the Bengals and an enlightened second half versus the Broncos have propelled Pittsburgh to 9-5. The Steelers currently hold the #6 seed in the AFC playoff race as a result.

Sunday’s victory against Denver gave us a glimpse of everything wrong – and then subsequently right – with this team.

The Steelers who showed up for the first half seemed to have forgotten that the season was, for all intents and purposes, on the line. The notorious pass defense surrendered 250 passing yards and 4 touchdowns (one rushing) to Brock Osweiler. Emmanuel Sanders pissed all over his former stadium with over 181 yards and a score, the vast majority of those yards coming in the first two quarters. The Broncos went 8/8 on third down conversions. Their defense, for the most part, kept the Steelers aerial attack quiet.

All around Pittsburgh, the question was “This is how it ends?”

Whatever happened in the Steelers locker room at half should have been broadcast on pay-per-view. The same defense that was being whipped just minutes before (minus Antwon Blake, thank God) came out firing. Coverage tightened up. The pass rush made noise. Third down defense shifted from a liability to an asset. It looked beautifully familiar.

Holistically, the current Steelers defense certainly isn’t on the level of the dominant late 2000s group. But the new wave of Pittsburgh defenders left their imprint on Sunday’s win. Cam Heyward powered through Denver’s line for a late sack of Osweiler. A wicked swim move by Stephon Tuitt and hot pursuit from Bud Dupree were the catalysts of Ryan Shazier’s first-career interception. Brandon Boykin locked down the flat, as advertised.

This unit has an ever-burning resiliency that makes them anything but the pushover they once looked like. There’s been no shortage of bumps along the way, but the Steelers defense is forging its own identity.

It’s true, the past three wins have come against backup quarterbacks. Nobody the Steelers have faced recently is on the same plane as Tom Brady. That’s simply the condition of the NFL this season, though, and the Patriots are no strangers to the sweeping number of injuries this year. 

Steelers-Patriots looks destined to go full circle by late January, as Pittsburgh has already taken care of the AFC forces not located in Foxborough. Denver did beat New England a few weeks ago, but the Osweiler high has worn off, evidently. Andy Dalton and the Bengals have no playoff pedigree, at least to this point.

With Julian Edelman returning soon, the Patriots offense is set to heat up down the stretch. The Steelers may be the only team that can walk into Gillette Stadium and slay Bill Belichick’s perennial superpower by matching fire with fire.

We all remember how Brady sliced through Pittsburgh’s secondary on opening night, to the tune of 3 touchdown passes to Rob Gronkowski. The Pats won the game 28-21. If the road to the Super Bowl does run through New England again, the defense is going to have to face one of their biggest nightmares for a second time.

The Steelers offense isn’t going anywhere. Pittsburgh has already shown they have what it takes to conquer the rest of the AFC pack. A trip to Super Bowl 50, however, is likely going to hinge on the performance of this season’s biggest culprit: the secondary.

Next: Steelers Tomlin Tuesday

As the old adage goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Time will tell if he 2015 Steelers have learned their lesson.

Stats used from NFL.com.