Mike Tomlin believes in 'football justice.' The Steelers have been served a cold dose of it

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin talks occasionally about the idea of “football justice," the belief that players and teams who put in the time and stick together are eventually rewarded.

A different kind of “football justice” seems to have materialized over the last week for Tomlin and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a karmic leveling of sorts that has turned a once-promising season on its head.

Barely 100 hours removed from a decisive upset at home at the hands of two-win Arizona, the Steelers followed with another disjointed and uninspired effort against New England in a 21-18 loss that dropped them from the top spot in the AFC wild-card race and left them scrambling to figure out how things got so sideways so quickly.

“Can’t put a mask over this,” defensive tackle Cam Heyward said. “This has been two ugly games that we have to be accountable for.”

That's the thing. The games have been ugly all year, an ugliness frequently masked by favorable results.

Now, the results are gone too. The ugliness remains.

Pittsburgh rose into contention by beginning the season 6-0 in games decided by eight points or less, a streak that included wins over AFC North rivals Cleveland and Baltimore, games in which the Steelers were outplayed and outgained but somehow not outscored thanks largely to the play of Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt and some curious coaching decisions by the guys on the other sideline.

It's a dangerous way to play, and, as it turns out, unsustainable.

All the breaks, all the calls, all the self-inflicted wounds by the opponents, have largely vanished over the last month.

On Thursday night, it was the Steelers who committed the momentum-swinging turnover when Mitch Trubisky threw into triple coverage in the first quarter to set up a New England touchdown.

It was the Steelers making the curious play calls while failing twice on fourth down in the second half, the first a flip from Trubisky to Jaylen Warren on fourth-and-2 that managed a single yard early in the fourth quarter, the second a heave down the right sideline to a heavily covered Diontae Johnson just before the two-minute warning that fell incomplete.

It was the Steelers who were on the wrong side of a call, this one a false start against long snapper Christian Kuntz with 5 minutes to go when officials ruled Kuntz illegally jerked his head up before the snap, a move Kuntz only said he made when he believed two Patriots jumped offsides.

Instead of a first down, the Steelers punted and, while they did get the ball back with 2:44 remaining, the late-game magic they summoned so regularly in tight games during their 7-4 start vanished.

There is time to correct things. Yet it's difficult to imagine a team that can't beat a pair of reeling clubs at home can successfully navigate a closing stretch that features four games against opponents still in the playoff chase, three of them coming on the road.

“Obviously this stings,” Tomlin said. “But we'll be back.”

For the first time in Tomlin's largely successful 17-year tenure, it's fair to wonder if they actually will.

WHAT'S WORKING

Good question. The defense shut out the Patriots in the second half, proof that the halftime adjustments by Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin worked. Of course, that's a very faint silver lining for a unit that allowed the NFL's worst offense to score three first-half touchdowns.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The play calling. Still. The brief honeymoon for interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan is over after a second straight underwhelming performance. The Steelers telegraph far too many plays based solely on personnel usage and digging into their bag of tricks isn't working either. A tight-end pass — yes, you read that right — near the goalline by Connor Heyward was swatted out of harm's way and a double reverse to Warren lost 7 yards.

STOCK UP

Inside linebacker Elandon Roberts, playing on an achy groin, had one of his finest games of the season while collecting six tackles with a sack and a pass defensed that led directly to Mychal Walker's third-quarter interception.

STOCK DOWN

Kenny Pickett's injury put Trubisky in a position to prove he's still capable of being an everyday starter, be it in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. Instead, he shrank in the moment, mixing the (very) occasional sharp throw with a handful of 50/50 balls off his back foot that highlighted mechanical issues he still hasn't figured out seven seasons into his career.

INJURIES

Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, part of the best edge rush tandem in the league, went out in the first half with a neck injury and did not return. Rookie Nick Herbig played well at times while filling in, but losing Highsmith for an extended period would allow opponents to devote even more resources to neutralizing Watt.

KEY NUMBER

1 — the number of times in NFL history a team with a winning record has lost to a team at least eight games under .500 in consecutive weeks, a dubious mark that now belongs to the Steelers.

NEXT STEPS

Hope for some favorable results over the weekend — like say, Cincinnati beating Indianapolis and Jacksonville beating Cleveland — before facing the Colts on Dec. 16.

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