EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Pittsburgh Steelers receiver James Washington remembers watching the video board at Heinz Field a year ago and praying that the Cleveland Browns would pull off a game-winning drive against the Baltimore Ravens to send the Steelers to the playoffs.
Washington and his teammates knelt on the field and looked up at the screen with fans surrounding them, most still glued to their seats. The stadium collectively held its breath as Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield let the ball fly on fourth-and-long with a minute left. Instead of landing in the hands of his receiver, Mayfield’s ball was picked off by C.J. Mosley.
That killed the Browns’ hope of a comeback and the Steelers’ hope of making the postseason.
They woke up Sunday morning in control of their destiny. By 4 p.m., it was gone.
“We’re hoping and wishing again, like last year,” linebacker Bud Dupree said. “Waiting on guys to lose. We just shouldn’t be in that situation. We had opportunities early in the season. Early and now, today, to go out and win games, to take ourselves out of that position. Even with all the adversity we’ve been through the whole year, we still had control of our own destiny. And we failed that.”
To clinch the final AFC wild-card spot, the Steelers (8-7) must win the regular-season finale on Sunday in Baltimore. But that won’t be enough.
Even if they win, the Steelers’ fate rests largely in the hands of the Tennessee Titans. But the outcome of the final game of the Colts, Raiders, Bears, Lions, Chargers and Patriots can also play a factor.
The Steelers’ standing for a playoff spot slipped a little with their Week 15 loss to the Buffalo Bills, but they could clinch a berth by winning out.
Collecting two wins against the inconsistent Jets and a Ravens team likely playing backups isn't a given, though, especially with the tenuous situation at quarterback.
That became even more apparent in Sunday’s loss, when both Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph played. Hodges was pulled for Rudolph in the second quarter but came back out in the fourth, after Rudolph sustained a left shoulder injury. The starting quarterback decision for next week’s game could come down to Rudolph’s availability.
“It’s a really weird season. I don’t think I’ve been a part of something like this before,” offensive lineman David DeCastro said. “I don’t know how to put it in words. We’re still alive, got a week left and got to get a win. That’s all that matters at this point.”
A year ago, the Steelers watched Mayfield throw away Pittsburgh's playoff hopes in the friendly confines of Heinz Field. This time, division rival Baltimore isn’t like to be as hospitable.
“We don’t want our playoff hopes in the hands of somebody else,” Washington said. “We’d rather just go ahead and just win out and it be on us. But it doesn’t work that way.”
It’s a frustrating reality for a locker room that entered the final month of the season with solid positioning for a playoff berth, which seemed far-fetched during the team’s 1-4 start and quarterback turmoil.
But a dominant defense carried the team back from the brink of a totally lost season, frequently putting points on the board to help an anemic offense. When the Steelers didn’t score, the defense kept opponents from doing too much damage. The past two weeks, the defense held both opponents to 17 or fewer points, but the Steelers still lost.
Because of the offense’s inability to score frequently, the defense’s margin for error was already razor-thin. Now, Dupree acknowledged, it doesn’t exist.
“We’ve gotta make more plays on the defensive side of the ball,” Dupree said. “We’ve just got to make more plays. More players have got to step up and just play perfect. Just play perfect.”
The Steelers’ Week 17 tilt against the Ravens kicks off at 4:25 p.m. Sunday, and so does the Titans-Texans game. Neither the Ravens nor the Texans have much to play for in the final week, with the Ravens wrapping up the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage. The Texans clinched the AFC South title with a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday.
“It sucks,” DeCastro said. “It’s tough. It is what it is. We put ourselves in this situation. See what happens next week.”