After the ball hooked right of the upright, the Pittsburgh Steelers jumped and danced and cavorted along their sideline. As it fluttered wide, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s jaw fell. He appeared to mutter, “He missed it,” to no one in particular, before turning, smiling, to his teammates.
The Steelers retreated to their locker room at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Sunday as the only unbeaten team in a rugged A.F.C., but at some point over the next 15 minutes or so, after the initial delight of a 27-24 victory, their moods changed. It was as if they had muddled through a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day instead of their opponents, the Tennessee Titans (5-1); as if they were the ones who had lost when a field-goal attempt in the waning seconds soared untrue.
“I don’t take it for granted, but there’s a way that we like to play,” Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said. “There’s a lot of meat on that bone.”
“No one’s really satisfied after today,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said.
“There’s a lot for us to be urgent about,” Coach Mike Tomlin said. “We won’t spend a lot of time celebrating this or appreciating this, because of our work that lies ahead.”
The Steelers, who led by 24-7 at halftime, dominated the first half Sunday. They scored on their first four drives. They converted their first seven third-down attempts. They silenced running back Derrick Henry and muffled quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and held the Titans, the A.F.C. team with the highest scoring average, to a single touchdown.
The Steelers (6-0) flailed in the second half Sunday. Their offense consisted of a measly field goal. They allowed a 73-yard touchdown. Roethlisberger threw two interceptions. The second, by Amani Hooker in the end zone, gave Tennessee, trailing by 3 points, the ball with 2 minutes 35 seconds remaining.
In four of the Titans’ five wins, Tannehill had led them on game-winning drives or in a fourth-quarter comeback, and as he dissected Pittsburgh — 7 yards to Corey Davis on third-and-2, 21 to A.J. Brown on third-and-12 — it seemed altogether possible, if not likely, that he would do so again. The Titans, after having a first-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 25, moved backward on their next three plays — but, apparently, not far enough.
Tennessee kicker Stephen Gostkowski is more accurate from far distances. He had made all five field-goal attempts of at least 50 yards this season. But he had missed five of 10 from 49 yards or closer, including two last week against Houston and three in the Titans’ season opener at Denver. The attempt on Sunday, with 19 seconds remaining, was from 45 yards, and the result was predictable.
The loss does not remove the sheen from the Titans’ strong start, nor does it dismiss their standing within a demanding A.F.C., where Baltimore, Kansas City, Buffalo and Las Vegas also lurk.
Over the coming weeks and months, that knot of competitive teams will no doubt untangle, but whether Tennessee contends for the conference’s top seed — and the only first-round bye in the playoffs — and not just an A.F.C. South title depends in part on whether its defense can solve its third-down troubles. The Titans entered the game as the worst third-down defense in the league, allowing conversions on 57.8 percent of chances, yet somehow fared worse Sunday: Pittsburgh was 13 of 18.
“We’re not starting fast enough on defense,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “It’s kind of like we’re expecting the offense to always dig us out of a hole.”
In that sense, the Steelers are the more complete team, with pass-rushing book ends, a stout secondary and an offense that saw 10 players — including Diontae Johnson, who caught nine passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns — touch the ball. That they won despite a minus-3 turnover margin seemed to vex Tomlin, but seven weeks into the season, no other team in the conference had weathered challenges — injuries and attrition and adhering to coronavirus protocols and, on Sunday, a formidable comeback from a formidable team — better than it had.
After it was over Sunday, after improving to 6-0 for the first time since 1978, the Steelers, who play at Baltimore next week, received not a shimmering trophy or commemorative apparel or a Gatorade bath, but rather a reward that’s less tangible. They briefly savored the satisfaction that accompanied an accomplishment that would mean far, far more in January or February.