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His body language spoke more than words. One by one, the Steelers players sat down and leaned back. The long sighs were followed by short phrases. Sometimes they looked to the sides or to their feet. At the top of a league that was the only team undefeated less than a week ago, the frustration of consecutive losses, the last 26-15 to the Bills on Sunday in Buffalo.
The inability to climb in a primetime game at Bills Stadium was so worrisome - or should I say worrisome? - they couldn't enjoy capturing their first playoff spot since 2017, thanks to the Dolphins' loss to the Chiefs earlier in the day. The Steelers know that a sustained playoff is unlikely to occur unless things improve, and the likelihood of that happening seems problematic based on the increasing injuries, inconsistent and relentless pace of the receiving body.
"Offensively, we're not very good," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose pick-six at the end of the first half sparked the Bills. "We're not playing good soccer, and it starts with me. So we all need to look in the mirror and realize that we all need to be better. I think we will be. This is a team that has a lot of endurance and understands what it takes to win soccer games and understands what time of year it is and understands that the way we're playing now is unacceptable.
Turning it around can be as difficult as turning 18 wheels when there are only three games left in the regular season. But the reality is: instead of having to answer questions about whether the AFC will win first place and only for now in the playoffs, the Steelers (11-2) now have to answer questions about whether they can win their division. The Browns, who play the Ravens on Monday night, return to the losing column and host the Steelers in the regular season final on Jan. 3.
Perhaps by then, the Steelers will have recovered their identity, something they never doubted during their six-run title race. The foundation for that has been a strong game and a solid defense, both of which are lacking at the moment. They ran just 21 yards against Washington last Monday and were equally inept against the Bills, gaining just 47 yards on 17 carries - this despite the return of eight-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and top running back James Conner from the COVID-19 roster.
Instead, the offense relied on Roethlisberger's surgically repaired right arm, which had attempted 104 passes in the previous two games, 196 in the previous four and 319 in the previous seven. For the first time in his 17-year career, he has thrown at least 46 assists in four consecutive games.
He entered Sunday night leading the NFL with 484 passing attempts, one year after losing all but six quarters to elbow surgery. The trend is troubling for both him and the team, as the Steelers are 27-37-1 in Roethlisberger's career when he throws 40 or more passes in a game.
"The defense can make a passing play if you can't run the ball," said Roethlisberger, who had 21 out of 37 for 187 yards with two balls and two interceptions. "We have to do a better job of playing a more balanced offense and do a better job of running the plays that are called.
Equally worrisome are the increasing injuries, especially on defense. Starting linebackers Devin Bush and Bud Dupree are out with end-of-season injuries, and at least two linebacker backups are currently out. Cornerback Joe Haden did not play because of a concussion, and offensive linebackers Kevin Dotson and Matt Feiler are out with shoulder injuries.
But this is the time of year when no one will feel sorry for a team, especially a Steelers team that prides itself on the motto: Next Man Up. Currently, the Bills (10-3) are everything the Steelers aren't: pulsating and confident. They've won six out of seven, their only loss was an improbable Hail Murray in Arizona, and they're looking for their first AFC East title since 1995. They are ahead of Miami by two games - they won the teams' first match earlier this year - and close the regular season against the Dolphins on January 3.
For most of the first half, their attack was as inept as that of the Steelers. Their first six possessions included four trays, one intercept and one spray. In fact, the defense was surpassed in the interception of Taron Johnson at the 51st yard just before halftime. But in a sign of how much the Bills have grown in maturity and talent, their offense dominated the second half, scoring on three of their first four possessions and controlling the ball in the last seven minutes and 11 seconds.
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Quarterback Josh Allen, who finished 24 for 43 for 238 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, looked like a young Roethlisberger in the third and fourth quarters. He stood firm in the pocket, even when pressed, and consistently executed laser finishes. He used a mix of shots to keep the Steelers off balance, sometimes getting rid of the ball before the rush came and sometimes waiting for things to go down the field. His main target was Stefon Diggs, who took over the game in consecutive touchdowns in the third quarter.
He made four catches for 42 yards, culminating in a 19-yard catch for a 16-7 score at Buffalo, then was scored at 22 and 19 yards to set up the 13-yard touchdown pass from Allen to Gabriel Davis for a 23-7. Diggs excelled at quick and intermediate passes; he outperformed the crowd and coverage in the area; he made the Bills look like a staff saver for acquiring him in a trade with Minnesota in the off-season, finishing with 10 catches for 130 yards. Their 1,167 yards of reception is a personal record and their 100 receptions tied a franchise record.
"Diggs is so special that when I see him play, I just want to rip the 'C' off my captain and throw it at his chest," said left tackle Dion Dawkins. "He's a stud, man.
Moments later, Dawkins got up and left. But if Sunday taught us anything, it's that the Bills aren't going anywhere anytime soon.