Just when it appeared the Steelers had turned a corner, had learned from their missteps, the improbable happened.
“An unfortunate performance,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
Playing at home, where they dominated their previous three opponents, against a team that had almost twice as many losses as victories, the Steelers delivered another dud.
This one might prove to be the most costly.
Drew Brees threw five touchdowns, Kenny Stills finished with 162 yards receiving, and Mark Ingram ran for 122 yards as the New Orleans Saints downed the Steelers, 35-32, on Sunday at Heinz Field.
It was the first win for the Saints (5-7) in Pittsburgh since 1987, and it was as convincing as the final score is misleading.
“This (stinks),” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. “I just wish we would stop losing to teams with not very good records. It’s all on us. If we win these next four, we will be in great position. If not, we are going to have to sit around and hope somebody helps us.”
The Steelers (7-5) sit deep down in the AFC playoff race — and 1 1⁄2 games behind division leader Cincinnati (8-3-1) — with one month to go largely thanks to losses such as Sunday’s and those to the 2-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 2-9 New York Jets.
Ten teams in the conference — 11 if Miami wins Monday night — have at least seven wins and remain contenders for a playoff berth.
The best way for the Steelers to fight their way into the picture is by winning their two remaining division games against the Bengals, who were the only division team to win Sunday.
“Every game is a playoff game from here on out,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “We really needed to have that sense of urgency for this game. We came up short. There’s not much left to talk about. It’s about doing it now.”
The Steelers found themselves in a similar situation in 2005 after losing a home game to the Bengals to fall to 7-5. They needed to win their final four games to make the playoffs and did just that. They went on to win four more to win Super Bowl XL.
The similarities are eerie but not relevant, said safety Troy Polamalu, one of the few players left from that team.
“The past is the past,” he said. “This is a different team. We have to see what we are made of this year. Looking in hindsight, I don’t know if we believed then. It just happened. If we get too far-sighted, it’s not going to happen.”
The Steelers are going to need a similar ending this season — beginning Sunday in Cincinnati — if they hope to snap a two-season streak of missing the playoffs.
But first they have to fix themselves.
The offense put up 538 yards and 32 points on a porous Saints defense. But 193 yards and 16 points came in the final 2:34 with the game already decided. Ben Roethlisberger, who was nursing a sore hand after hitting it against a Saints defender in the first quarter, threw for 435 yards but also a pair of interceptions.
The defense allowed 27 first-quarter yards, then allowed scoring drives of 79, 80, 89 and 80 yards that included a 69-yard touchdown and a 44-yard reception by Stills, but it was Ingram’s running that created opportunities.
“The first quarter we were doing our thing,” linebacker James Harrison said. “Once we allowed them to start running the ball, they had the play-action passes, double routes. … We didn’t do a good enough job because we lost. I don’t care about anything else.”
The Steelers got off to a fast enough start, holding the ball for 12 minutes, converting 4 of 6 third downs and pounding the ball with Le’Veon Bell, but they managed only two Shaun Suisham field goals in the first half.
“You can’t have that against an explosive offense like New Orleans,” Tomlin said.
Tomlin proved to be right when the Saints put it in the end zone twice within the final six minutes of the half, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to fullback Erik Lorig with 36 seconds left. The Saints scored 21 unanswered points after falling behind 6-0.
“We all didn’t play well enough today,” Mitchell said. “When we were scoring, we weren’t getting stops. When we were getting stops, we weren’t scoring.”
Now there’s not much more room for error.
“We have to control what we have, and that’s to get these last four wins,” guard Ramon Foster said. “If we don’t do that, we eliminate ourselves.”