Don’t look now, but the Steelers are right back in it

The Boston Globe Sports 6 days ago

The Steelers were left for dead in September when Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season. The Mike Tomlin era looked as if it would be ending with a whimper.

The Steelers started the season 0-3 and 1-4, and backup quarterback Mason Rudolph didn’t exactly light it up. He entered Sunday averaging 181 passing yards per game and ranked 29th of 32 quarterbacks in yards per attempt (6.59).

Yet I’m scanning the NFL standings on Sunday night . . . and what the heck? The Steelers are 5-4, holding the tiebreaker over the Raiders and Colts for the final AFC playoff spot? How did that happen?

The Steelers’ surprising turnaround is where we begin the Week 10 Review:

■  Their 17-12 win over the Rams gave the Steelers three wins in a row since their bye week. They are 4-1 in their last five, with their only loss coming in overtime to Baltimore. And the Steelers have beaten three competent teams — the Chargers, Colts, and Rams. The Steelers even won the Chargers game with their third-string quarterback, Devlin Hodges.

While the Steelers’ offense is understandably struggling — on Sunday they were held under 300 total yards for the second straight game — their defense has been downright nasty. The Steelers haven’t allowed 350 yards in six straight games, and they’ve created 19 takeaways in that span. They have also scored three defensive touchdowns, with Minkah Fitzpatrick returning a fumble for a score on Sunday.

Rudolph has been playing like a backup, but he’s not hurting the Steelers, with 11 touchdowns against four interceptions this year. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner deserves a lot of credit for putting Rudolph in position to be successful.

And Tomlin deserves a lot of credit for getting the Steelers to 5-4 despite playing with backup quarterbacks. This may be one of his best coaching jobs.

■  If the Ravens’ 37-20 win over the Patriots didn’t convince you that they are for real, then Sunday’s 49-13 thrashing of the Bengals should do it. Lamar Jackson was flawless, throwing for three touchdowns and compiling a perfect 158.3 passer rating while also ripping off an all-time great 47-yard touchdown run. And the defense scored two more touchdowns, giving them five in their last three games.

Beating up on the Bengals isn’t impressive in and of itself, but the Ravens are now dominating the bad teams like the Patriots did early in the season. And unlike most teams that score big wins over the Pats, the Ravens didn’t have an emotional letdown in their next game.

The Ravens are now 7-2 and are breathing right down the Patriots’ necks for the No. 1 seed. But their next three games will be the real test — vs. Houston, at L.A. Rams, and vs. San Francisco.

■  The Chiefs’ 35-32 loss to the Titans dropped them to 6-4 and dealt a huge blow to their chances of getting a first-round bye. The Chiefs currently have the No. 4 seed and are only a half game ahead of the Raiders in the AFC West.

But big picture, they’ve got to feel good about Patrick Mahomes. Playing for the first time since dislocating his knee three weeks ago, Mahomes threw for 446 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions, and he was able to make the acrobatic throws that make him so unstoppable.

The Chiefs may have to go on the road for the playoffs, but they will be a threat as long as Mahomes is healthy.

■  Staying in Nashvile, the Titans improved to 5-5 and kept their playoff hopes alive with their last-second win. And Ryan Tannehill is a great story. Cut loose by Miami after seven inconsistent seasons (with five different offensive coordinators), Tannehill is now 3-1 as the Titans’ starter. He was incredibly gutsy down the stretch on Sunday, bowling over defenders and marching right down the field in the final minute for the game-winning score. The Titans would probably have another win or two had they started Tannehill over Marcus Mariota all season.

■  It’s probably heresy to suggest that the Saints should consider benching Drew Brees and going back to Teddy Bridgewater. But the Saints’ offense took a major step backward in Sunday’s shocking 26-9 loss to the Falcons. The Saints managed just three field goals and no touchdowns in 10 drives, while Brees needed 45 pass attempts to get his 287 yards. We never see the Saints’ offense struggle like this, especially at home.

The loss dropped the Saints’ to 7-2, brought them back to the pack in the NFC playoff race, and gave the 49ers some breathing room for the No. 1 seed.

The loss may have just been a bad day against a division rival. But facts are facts, and Bridgewater went 5-0 as a starter, while the offense struggled terribly with Brees. It’s fair to wonder if the thumb injury that kept Brees out for six weeks is still bothering him.

■  Meanwhile, good for Dan Quinn, who survived the bye week with his job intact and rewarded Falcons owner Arthur Blank with an impressive win. Quinn still is firmly on the hot seat at 2-7, but beating the Saints in New Orleans is a nice feather in his cap. This game probably wrecked a lot of survivor pools, and was Example A of why I don’t bet on football.

■  The Browns tried their best to lose on Sunday, but stumbled into a 19-16 win over the Bills. The Browns should have won this game going away, but their goal line offense was spectacularly inept. On one series, the Browns had eight straight plays on the goal line and couldn’t punch the ball in. Later in the first half, they had four plays from the 3-yard line and again couldn’t score a touchdown.

The Browns invested in all these nice, shiny toys — Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, Olivier Vernon — but forgot about the offensive line.

Also, Bills quarterback Josh Allen is horrible, and he’s not going to develop into a dependable NFL starter. The sooner the Bills admit it, the better.

■  The Cardinals looked impulsive for dumping former QB Josh Rosen and head coach Steve Wilks after one year, but it looks as if they got it right the second time around.

Yes, the Cardinals lost at Tampa Bay on Sunday to drop to 3-6-1. But Kyler Murray was a dynamo, throwing for 324 yards and three touchdowns while also adding a 32-yard scramble. Murray did throw his first interception in 211 pass attempts — a rookie record — but he played with tremendous poise and has shown marked improvement throughout the season. He’s going to be a good one.

And Kliff Kingsbury has been impressive in his first season, despite the Cardinals’ record. They have been feisty and unpredictable — the Cards pulled off a flea-flicker fake punt on Sunday — and the entire team, like Murray, has improved throughout the season. The Cardinals look as if they will be this year’s version of “the team nobody wants to play in December.”

Ex-Patriots players

■  Colts QB Brian Hoyer: Making his first start since Week 6 of 2017, Hoyer threw for 204 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions in the Colts’ 16-12 loss to the Dolphins. Hoyer’s passer rating was 38.8.

■  Falcons P Ryan Allen and K Younghoe Koo: Allen, the Patriots’ punter from 2013-18, had a quiet game in his first NFL action of the season, punting twice for 77 yards. Koo, who was on the Patriots’ practice squad for two weeks this season, hit all six of his kicks — four field goals (long of 48) and two extra points.

■  Jets WR Demaryius Thomas: Led his team with six catches for 84 yards in a nice win over the Giants. The Patriots could use him.

■  Lions DE Trey Flowers: Had seven tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss in the Lions’ loss to the Bears. Now has four sacks in his last three games.

■  Colts K Adam Vinatieri: Missed his sixth extra point of the season in the Colts’ 16-12 loss, which forced them to go for a touchdown at the end instead of kicking a game-tying field goal. Poor Vinny.

■  Titans RB Dion Lewis: Was active on Sunday but had no stats. Free Dion Lewis!

Ex-Patriots coaches

■  Titans Mike Vrabel: Unbelievable comeback win, but tried to blow it at the end with a squib kick and prevent defense that gave the Chiefs a game-tying field goal attempt.

■  Lions Matt Patricia: Suffered another tough loss, 20-13 at Chicago, playing with his backup quarterback. Lions are 3-5-1 and need to run the table just to have a shot at the playoffs.

■  Dolphins Brian Flores: Owner Stephen Ross reportedly attended Alabama-LSU on Saturday to personally watch quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. If Flores keeps winning, the Dolphins may wind up with neither.

■  Texans Bill O’Brien: The 6-3 Texans jumped ahead of the Chiefs for the No. 3 seed despite having a bye. Huge game at Baltimore next Sunday.

Stats of the week

■  The Saints did not score a touchdown for the third game this season. They only had two games without a touchdown from 2006 to 2018.

■  Mahomes is now 1-2 in his young career when throwing for 400-plus yards.

■  Lamar Jackson joined Aaron Rodgers and Joe Montana as the only players in the Super Bowl era to record three passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, a perfect passer rating, and at least 15 completions in a game.

■  Lions QB Matthew Stafford’s consecutive-games-started streak ended at 136.

■  And Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz missed the first snaps of his eight-year career to get his knee checked, ending a streak of 7,894 consecutive snaps.

■  Giants RB Saquon Barkley rushed 13 times for 1 yard, an average of 0.077 yards, or about 2.8 inches, per carry.


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