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The Steelers Lost a Game. It Was About Time.

Pittsburgh never really had the look of an unbeaten squad—but despite an ugly loss to Washington, they are still Super Bowl contenders

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Steelers finally lost a football game Monday night, and it felt like some sort of cosmic rule of the universe snapped back into order. Like traffic on the 405, Starbucks spelling your name wrong, or Taylor Swift dominating year-end playlists, some things just make sense—and one of those things is that this Pittsburgh team is no longer the last undefeated team in the NFL. While the Steelers still sit atop the AFC, the NFL standings look more correct with a one in Pittsburgh’s loss column.

All season long, as the Steelers creeped closer and closer to an unblemished 19-0 record and a chance to make history, it became more and more clear that this team was getting, well, pretty lucky. Before Monday, they’d gone 6-0 in one-score games, which represented more than half of the team’s wins. They’d played the third-easiest schedule in the league according to Pro Football Reference’s strength of schedule metric. FiveThirtyEight’s ELO ratings pinned the Steelers as the second-worst 11-0 team in NFL history, out of 18 teams:

The streak finally came to an end against the Washington Football Team, a 4-7 squad starting third-string quarterback Alex Smith (who suffered a gnarly gash to his left leg in the second quarter). The Football Team got off to a slow start, but a handful of successful second-half drives—combined with a sputtering Steelers offense—allowed Washington to overpower Pittsburgh, 23-17. The loss, which came at Heinz Field, stings for Pittsburgh. But it also allows us to stop comparing the Steelers to unbeaten teams of the past, and start thinking about how Pittsburgh stacks up against other Super Bowl contenders this year.

Make no mistake, the Steelers are a good football team. Coming into the week, they ranked second in Football Outsiders’s DVOA, and third in Pro Football Focus’s power ratings. Pittsburgh has the league’s best defense: It ranks first in DVOA, first in points per game allowed, first in takeaways, and first in passing yards allowed. T.J. Watt leads the league in sacks and is a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. Their receivers group is among the best in the league at times, the offensive line is good when healthy, and the defensive secondary is a stifling unit. On the whole, this is one of the most fleshed-out rosters in football. No team wants to travel to Pittsburgh this winter.

But in this game, most of the things that have typically gone right for the Steelers didn’t. Though Pittsburgh opened to a 14-0 lead, they seemed to run out of gas as the game went on. The team was coming off a shortened week owing to the Ravens’ COVID-19 outbreak that delayed Week 12’s game until Wednesday. Pittsburgh also was missing running back James Conner, cornerback Steven Nelson, and center Maurkice Pouncey due to various ailments. Linebacker Robert Spillane, and corner Joe Haden left the game due to injury.

Still, the Steelers were expected to handle a Washington team that hails from the worst division in football and hadn’t won in Pittsburgh since George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Pittsburgh’s 14-point lead seemed to confirm that they’d make short work of a team that doesn’t even have a name:

But the Football Team put up a fight, showing flashes of long-term potential. Washington has pumped resources into its front four—including using the no. 2 pick in the 2020 draft on pass rusher Chase Young—and it showed in this contest. The Football Team held the Steelers backfield to just 21 rushing yards on 13 carries. Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 53 times, and the results were unimpressive: The Steelers punted on six drives and were stopped short on fourth down on another two. And while the Washington pass rush did not sack Roethlisberger in the game, they tipped multiple passes, and it was that ability to disrupt the pocket that generated the turnover that all but put the game away for the Football Team:

The Steelers, meanwhile, made plenty of mistakes. They were stuffed on the goal line in the second quarter, dropped multiple would-be completions, were outscored 20-3 in the second half, and lost the turnover battle for just the second time all season. It was a busted coverage that led to Washington tying the game:

The Steelers even remain atop the AFC despite the loss, holding a tiebreaker over the Chiefs for the no. 1 spot thanks to Pittsburgh’s loss coming to an out-of-conference opponent. Pittsburgh still has a clear path to the conference’s top seed, and the postseason bye week that goes with it. That bye would be crucial for Pittsburgh, given that the team had its bye week moved up to Week 4 during the Titans’ coronavirus outbreak. The Steelers are still Super Bowl contenders, they’re just no longer contenders to go 19-0. And looking at their history of close performances, they never really were.