Their body language said more than their words. One by one, Pittsburgh Steelers players took a seat and leaned back. Long sighs were followed by short sentences. Sometimes they stared off to the side or at their feet. The high of being the NFL's only unbeaten team less than a week earlier had been replaced by the frustration of back-to-back losses, the most recent a 26-15 defeat to the Bills on Sunday in Buffalo.
The inability to rise to the occasion in a prime-time game in Bills Stadium was so bothersome -- or should I say worrisome? -- the Steelers could not enjoy clinching their first playoff berth since 2017, thanks to the Dolphins' loss to the Chiefs earlier in the day. The Steelers know a sustained playoff run is unlikely if things don't improve, and the likelihood of that happening appears challenging based on mounting injuries, an inconsistent run game and continued dropped passes by the receiving corps.
"Offensively, we're not very good," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose pick-six near the end of the first half sparked the Bills. "We're not playing good football and that starts with me. So we all need to look in the mirror and understand that we all need to be better. I think that we will be. This is a team that has a lot of resilience and understands what it takes to win football games, and understands what time of year it is, and understands that the way we're playing right now is unacceptable."
Turning things around could be as challenging as making a U-turn in an 18-wheeler, what with only three games remaining in the regular season. But the reality is this: Instead of answering questions about earning the AFC's top seed and only bye in the playoffs, the Steelers (11-2) are now being forced to answer questions about whether they can win their division. The Browns, who play Monday night against the Ravens, are a game back in the loss column and host the Steelers in the regular-season finale on Jan. 3.
Perhaps by then the Steelers will have regained their identity, which was never in doubt during their six title runs. The foundation was a strong running game and stout defense, both of which are currently missing. They ran for only 21 yards last Monday against Washington and were similarly 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 rusher James Conner from the COVID-19 list.
Instead, the offense has relied on the surgically repaired right arm of Roethlisberger, who had attempted 104 passes over the previous two games, 196 over the previous four, and 319 over the previous seven. It marked the first time in his 17-year career that he had thrown at least 46 passes in four straight games.
He entered Sunday night leading the NFL with 484 pass attempts, one year after missing all but six quarters because of elbow surgery. The trend is cause for concern for both his and the team's well-being, in that the Steelers are 27-37-1 during Roethlisberger's career when he attempts 40 or more passes in a game.
"Defenses can play pass if you can't run the ball," said Roethlisberger, who was 21 of 37 for 187 yards with two scores and two interceptions on Sunday night. "We need to do better at being a more balanced offense and we need to do better at executing the plays that are called."
Of equal concern are the mounting injuries, particularly on defense. Starting linebackers Devin Bush and Bud Dupree are out with season-ending injuries, and at least two backups at linebacker are currently sidelined. Cornerback Joe Haden did not play because of a concussion, and offensive linemen Kevin Dotson and Matt Feiler left with shoulder injuries.
But this is the time of year where no one is going to feel sorry for a team, particularly a Steelers squad that prides itself on the motto: Next Man Up. Currently, the Bills (10-3) are everything the Steelers are not: surging and sure about themselves. They've won six of seven, the only loss being the improbable Hail Murray at Arizona, and are seeking their first AFC East title since 1995. They lead Miami by two games -- they won the teams' first meeting earlier this year -- and close out the regular season against the Dolphins on Jan. 3.
For much of the first half, the Bills' offense appeared as inept as that of the Steelers. Their first six possessions included four punts, an interception and a lost fumble. In fact, the defense had outscored the unit on a 51-yard interception return by Taron Johnson just before halftime. But in a sign of just how much the Bills have grown in maturity and talent, their offense dominated the second half, scoring on three of its first four possessions and controlling the ball for the final 7 minutes, 11 seconds.
Quarterback Josh Allen, who finished 24 of 43 for 238 yards and two scores with one interception, looked like a young Roethlisberger in the third and fourth quarters. He stood tall in the pocket, even when pressured, and consistently delivered laser completions. He used a mixture of releases to keep the Steelers off balance, sometimes getting rid of the football before the rush could arrive, other times waiting for things to develop downfield. His primary target was Stefon Diggs, who took over the game on consecutive touchdown drives in the third quarter. He had four catches for 42 yards on the first, culminating with a 19-yard reception that made the score 16-7, Buffalo, then had back-to-back gains of 22 and 19 yards to set up Allen's 13-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis to make it 23-7. Diggs excelled on quick and intermediate passes; he beat man coverage and zone coverage; he made the Bills look like personnel savants for acquiring him in a trade with Minnesota in the offseason, finishing with 10 catches for 130 yards. His 1,167 receiving yards are a personal high, and his 100 receptions have already tied the franchise's single-season record.
"Diggs is so special that, as I see him play, I just want to rip off my captain's 'C' and throw it on his chest," said left tackle Dion Dawkins. "He's a stud, man."
Moments later, Dawkins rose and departed. But if Sunday taught us anything, it's that the Bills aren't going anywhere anytime soon.