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Can the Pittsburgh Steelers compete in the AFC North? Sounds crazy to say, but it's a fair question to ask after their complete unmasking in Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon.

The harsh reality for the Steelers is that this season is starting to look and feel a lot like last year, only they weren't the league's last unbeaten team this November when things began to unravel again. In fact, this lopsided defeat (41-10), which started getting away from the Steelers from the opening drive, was far too similar to their playoff loss to the Browns from last January, and continued an ugly trend of a second-half-of-the-season slump that is far too similar to 2020 for any Steelers coach or executive to have to contemplate.

Much was made of Ben Roethlisberger going five weeks without a pick, but the offense remains marginal at best – a pop-gun short passing game reliant on YAC to move the ball downfield – and the offensive line and running game are not nearly good enough to offset the limitations and deficiencies of a nearly 40-year old quarterback who was already at the end this time a year ago. To expect December or January to bring any different results this time around is folly, and with a daunting gauntlet of remaining games for the Steelers (Baltimore, at Minnesota, Tennessee, at Kansas City, Cleveland, at Baltimore) it might be even uglier this time around.

Sunday's affair was over well before the half, but Big Ben punctuated it with a careless pick-six to make it 31-3 at intermission (the assault continued with a forced fumble in the third quarter as he was hit from behind). It summed up the afternoon. At the half the Bengals had held the ball over 19 minutes (Joe Mixon ran for over 100 yards in the half alone), racked up 18 first downs, went 4-for-5 on third down (Joe Burrow beat the defense on third-and-longs) and compiled 261 yards, while Pittsburgh's offense simply sputtered.

The Steelers finish November going 1-2-1 in their last four games, beating the Bears with a serious assist from an officiating crew, tying the winless Lions at home, and giving up 82 points in consecutive defeats to the Chargers and Bengals. But this is perhaps even more staggering – since barely beating a COVID-ravaged Ravens team of backups, 19-14, on a Wednesday afternoon last Dec. 2 (dubbed a JV performance by coach Mike Tomlin), the Steelers are 1-5 against division foes.

They managed to lose to quarterback Ryan Finley and the struggling Bengals on Christmas week last year, then lost consecutive games to the Browns -- first 24-22 and then 48-37 in the wild-card round -- and lost Week 3 at home to the Bengals, 24-10, before edging out the Browns, 15-10, at the end of October. A minus-43 scoring differential at this point in the season is probably pretty telling of how good or bad you are.

Sunday's drubbing felt a little different than even most of those. The Steelers are looking too old in some areas, and too green in others. T.J. Watt is still working back from injury, the defensive line ain't what it once was, and the offensive line couldn't get fixed in just one offseason. Nothing lasts forever, and this run with Ben Roethlisberger continued this franchise's remarkable run of success. But time is quickly running out on a Hall of Fame career and on this season.

Lawrence and Jags' first-half failures astonishing

Been tracking this for a while, and it continues to astonish: The Jaguars' lack of a passing game in the first half of games is truly staggering. They have played five games dating back to their bye week, when head coach Urban Meyer abandoned the team to party in Columbus, and do not have a first-half passing touchdown in any of them.

Trevor Lawrence, the first pick of the entire draft and a slam-dunk selection at that, has been unable to do much of anything at all until the Jags are chasing games. That is just their reality. In his last five first halves – obviously the equivalent of 2½ games – he has a total of 417 passing yards. Yes, you read that correctly. That is on 78 attempts, folks (5.3 per attempt!). With no touchdowns and two picks … for a rating of 67.09.

That's a failure, folks. No other way to couch it.

Lawrence went 12-for-19 for 100 yards and an interception in the first half against a very bad Atlanta defense, and that was probably his best first half since mid-October. Not sure how owner Shad Khan views progress, or what he prizes the most, but is 2-9 with no signs of life as a passing game is what he had in mind making the gamble on Meyer, well, I guess he got what he wanted! It's been a disaster, and we have seen plenty of other coaches be gone as a one-and-done for far less.

Strange play-calling by Eagles

Strange play-calling day for the Eagles. They ran the ball up and down the field and then got a little cute and pass happy in money situations. Three picks by Jalen Hurts really hurt, and kept the Giants in a game the Eagles could have put away. Despite Hurts making some bad decisions, he drove the team on what could have been a game-winning drive, only to be undermined by repeated drops on very catchable passes. The loss probably kills the Eagles' middling playoff chances. 

More Week 12 insider notes

  • Zach Wilson limping around and in distress in his first game back after a lengthy injury absence is what one would dub: suboptimal at best. Still a lot of football to be played with that offense and behind that offensive line. Has to give you some pause … 
  • The Colts let another game get away after bossing around the Bucs early.  At one point the Colts passed on 27 straight plays, and that's despite Jonathan Taylor being healthy and in good form. Odd, to say the least.  They went back to Taylor to tie the game, at least, but a lack of balance and brain cramp mistakes by Carson Wentz cost them in the end ...
  • Hard to see that much of a difference in the Giants' offense Sunday (264 yards – woo hoo!). Wide receivers were still very hit or miss in terms of them making an impact, points remained very hard to come by, and big questions about the direction of this franchise under Joe Judge still loom … 
  • Cam Newton's last stand as an NFL starter is looking pretty bleak. Accuracy and placement remain a big issue, and he looked every bit as bad as Sam Darnold at his worst before the Panthers made the desperate move to bring Newton back. I was rooting for a feel-good story here, but that's not in the cards. At 5-7, Carolina is fading fast and, down 27-10 through three quarters on Sunday, Newton was 5-for-21 for 92 yards with two picks and a QB rating of 5.8. Yeah, 5.8 …
  •  I did not see the Titans – struggling mightily to sustain the run game with Derrick Henry out – churning out over 200 yards on the ground at New England. Especially with no A.J. Brown, I figured Bill Belichick would shut down the run if nothing else. That defense hasn't been bullied much like that this season. But J.C. Jackson and Matt Judon are game-changers … 
  • A lot of attention has gone to the Chiefs and the way that defense has reversed course midseason, but the Dolphins have quietly done the same thing. It's pretty remarkable. The Dolphins have won four in a row after suffering a seven-game losing streak and they haven't given up more than 17 points in a game since a Week 8 loss to Buffalo (26-11).