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The Steelers Eked Out Another Win—but How Long Can They Keep That Up?

Pittsburgh is 7-1 in single-score games, an unsustainable record that may point to deeper vulnerabilities

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We should just call the Steelers what they are: thieves. They’ve stolen five wins this year, including each of their last three games, all in prime time, by a combined seven points. Pittsburgh, now 11-2 on the season and the AFC North champion, is 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That figure is both a sign of their late-game clutchness and an unsustainable mark that could make the Steelers vulnerable in the playoffs, and their 39-38 victory over Baltimore showed both sides of that coin.

Sunday night was the worst the Steelers defense has ever played against the Ravens. No, really. The Ravens scored 38 points, the most the franchise has ever dropped on Pittsburgh. Baltimore running back and budding Irish jig dancer Alex Collins ran ragged, rushing 18 times for 120 yards and added two catches for 46 yards. Joe Flacco tied a season-high with 269 passing yards and added two touchdowns and an interception. (Fun fact: 38 quarterbacks have thrown for more than 270 yards at least once this season, but not Flacco!) The Steelers’ defense looked unorganized and undisciplined at times. Pittsburgh was flagged six times for 101 yards, though that included a handful of questionable calls, such as this one for pass interference on cornerback Artie Burns.

With all of the miscues and mishegas, the Ravens seized a 31-20 lead with a little less than three minutes left in the third quarter, which is right around the time the Steelers’ offense has set its alarm clock to wake up all season.

The Ravens, who entered the week with the no. 1 defense by DVOA, hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passer this season, so naturally, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards on 44 completions and a mind-numbing 66 attempts. Roethlisberger’s fourth quarter alone (228 yards) would have been the fifth-best game total of any quarterback against Baltimore this year. Le’Veon Bell did his part, too, turning 22 touches into 125 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. Antonio Brown became his unguardable self in the most high-leverage moments, as Roethlisberger found his all-world receiver over and over again for double-digit gains in the fourth quarter for the umpteenth time this season. Brown turned 18 targets into 11 catches and 213 yards, 136 of which came in the fourth quarter. (Why the Ravens weren’t doubling him late in the game is befuddling, to say the least.) The Steelers have the best running back and wide receiver in football, and they seem comfortable relying on that embarrassment of riches to pull out a victory in the fourth quarter every week.

Meanwhile, the Ravens dominated much of the game before flying into a clean window. Ravens haters and fans alike have been waiting for Baltimore’s season to implode since before the year even began, as injuries decimated the roster. After the first two weeks of the season, Baltimore had 15 players on IR, as much as the rest of the AFC North combined. That list included both starting guards in Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis and the team’s top two running backs in Kenneth Dixon and Danny Woodhead. Yet the Ravens kept winning, and a surprising 7-5 start put them in position for the postseason. While they’re still technically holding onto the final AFC playoff spot with tiebreakers, they’re in a three-way tie at 7-6 along with the Chargers and Bills. With games against the Browns, Colts, and Bengals to finish the season, the Ravens will either coast to the playoffs or lose their spot in humiliating fashion. If you know any Ravens fans, please hug them.

While the Ravens head to Cleveland and try not to lose to the worst team in football, the Steelers host the most intimidating team in the league in next week’s home matchup against New England. That game will be the biggest test of Pittsburgh’s season and could provide a preview of who will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl (13 of the last 14 seasons have featured the Steelers or Patriots or both in the AFC Championship game). The Steelers may be tied for the best record in football, but their plus-69 point differential is ninth in the league. A team with Super Bowl aspirations should not be flirting with losses against the Colts, the Bengals (who were annihilated by Chicago this Sunday), or the Rodgers-less Packers (who almost lost to the Browns this week). The Steelers’ late-game heroics are impressive until you remember there’s no reason they should have needed those heroics in the first place.