With homefield advantage, a first round bye and another AFC North Division title staring them right in the face, the Steelers laid an egg on Monday Night Football against the San Fransisco 49ers. Now, sitting at 10-4, it looks like the road to Super Bowl XLVI will not go through Pittsburgh.
After watching the Texans and Ravens lose on Sunday, Pittsburgh held the tiebreaker over the New England Patriots, thanks to a win in week 8. Heading into Monday night's game, the Steelers had ten days to prepare for the 11-3 San Fransisco 49ers who had just come off an embarrassing loss to the Arizona Cardinals the week before. Instead of being prepared, the Steelers were crushed by a Harbaugh led team for the third time this season.
The game circulated around the toughness of Ben Roethlisberger who received a high ankle sprain the previous week against Cleveland. In what usually is a 4-6 week injury, Roethlisberger came back to play the following week against the 49ers. While you can't criticize Ben for playing through the injury, his performance dictated that, in hindsight, he shouldn't have played. The injury limited his mobility and altered his throws leading to four turnovers. The offense barely sniffed the red zone and the Steelers mustered just 3 points thanks to a 51 yard field goal by Shaun Suisham.
Meanwhile, the defense did their best to hold San Fransisco in the first half of the game, limiting them to six points off of turnovers. But in the second half, when they needed to make a stop, the Steelers gave up a touchdown to put San Fransisco ahead for good. With zero sacks on Alex Smith and a soft zone coverage, the defense was picked apart as if they were playing against one of the top offenses in the game. In my opinion, the gameplan looked backward. Smith is nothing more than a game manager who success is built off of an offense that can run the ball. In critical situations, the defensive backs played ten yards off the line of scrimmage and allowed Smith to through 8 yard out routs which turned into first downs.
With ten days to prepare, both side of the ball should have had a much better gameplan.
Now, the Steelers come back to Pittsburgh to play what will most-assuredly be their last home game until next season. While the Ravens still need to play the Bengals on the road, you would really be asking a lot for the Steelers to fall into another situation where they would get a first round bye. With the most likely scenario being that Pittsburgh will have to win three games on the road to make the Super Bowl, a repeat trip seems unlikely. This is not 2005. This is a much older team that needed the bye-week in order to rest their players as well as play just two games at home instead of three on the road.
The Steelers' road performances have been poor, for the most part. They were crushed against the Ravens, Texans and 49ers, and they struggled to win against the lowly Colts and Chiefs. A Cinderella team is possible, but not probable. From here on out, the focus should be on resting their injured players and getting read for a round one match up against the Texans or Broncos.