Kovacevic: The Steelers are back ... right?
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Steelers are back.
There really is no other way to put it, right?
Not after they set down the Super Bowl champion Giants, 24-20, Sunday, thanks to a fabulous fourth quarter that was the antithesis of all those early-season collapses.
Not after they avoided getting flustered by some of the worst officiating you'll see in one half of football.
Not after they shrugged off what should have been a backbreaker of a decision by Mike Tomlin to have his, um, kicker try to run the ball.
Not after they coolly dealt with a discomfiting setting in which they flew up and back to Newark, N.J., at dawn and dusk and, at the same time, weren't “even a little inconvenienced compared to what people are going through here,” as Mike Wallace gracefully referenced the region's victims of Hurricane Sandy.
No, after all that, a three-game winning streak, a 5-3 record and a fresh strut to their step, it's safe to say: The Steelers are back.
Or so I'd thought.
Running this concept from stall to stall in the locker room afterward, the reaction was remarkably — perhaps tellingly — similar.
“Back?” Casey Hampton said. “Naw, we're gettin' there, man. We know how dominant we can be, the type of team we can be. We know we're playing OK, but we can be a lot better.”
“Getting there,” Chris Rainey said with a grin through the grimace of bruised ribs. “Just getting there.”
The most pointed response, predictably, came from Ryan Clark.
“No, we're not back. We're just playing football,” he said. “I think to be ‘back,' we had to be considered gone, right? Only y'all considered us gone. I understood the type of men we had in here, the type of talent. But no, we're not back. We just won a couple football games.”
Yeah, but … OK, you can't fight City Hall on this stuff.
Still, let's be real: It would be an injustice to describe this as anything less than the Steelers' best showing since that thorough dissection of the Patriots last year at Heinz Field.
The athletes are right. This wasn't dominant. It wasn't the way the Steelers' championship teams might have controlled the event front to finish. This team tips away passes. Those teams slammed the opposing quarterback 6 feet into the ground. It's not the same feel.
And yet, this 2012 edition is taking on its own identity:
And it's damned tough.
You see the dynamic every week with all the breakaway receivers, and you're seeing it now in the return game. Once Emmanuel Sanders, Wallace and Rainey sprung free, the Giants had no answers.
“We've got a lot of guys who can bust it open,” Jerricho Cotchery said. “Eventually, we did.”
You see the depth where few would have expected.
The same Keenan Lewis who went without a solitary pass defensed in the first three games delivered three of those Sunday in the first quarter alone to keep the great Eli Manning from going all guns blazing.
The same running game that had been stuck at a historic crawl now makes it impossible to tell who's No. 1, with Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman leapfrogging each other week after week.
Ask me, and Redman's bulldozing 147 yards should make him No. 1.
Ask me next week, and I'll probably answer differently.
And not enough praise can be heaped on an offensive line that's running downhill with so much gravity they could be dubbed Newton's Line. Give credit to the backs, but just remember that the line is the constant.
Loved this line from rookie tackle Mike Adams, who was burned early but recovered nicely: “To have a number of backs rushing well behind us, it's something we take a lot of pride in.”
The toughness is my favorite facet, though.
Stop and think to how many times Sunday this team experienced something so deflating, so dispiriting you thought that was it.
The phantom pass interference call on Lewis?
“Didn't touch the guy,” he said.
The flag on Clark for hitting the Giants' Victor Cruz “in the head,” according to anatomically challenged referee Bill Leavy, who clearly saw Cruz's head down where his ribs should be?
“I tried to obey the rules,” Clark said.
The weird — though at least debatable — ruling that Ben Roethlisberger fumbled when a) his arm moved forward b) the ball was still touching his hand and c) the ball was actually thrown forward?
“I had complete control,” Roethlisberger said.
Those officiating mistakes essentially handed New York 14 points.
And what about Tomlin's bizarre, boneheaded call for Shaun Suisham to take that circus-like flip on a fake field goal rather than going for a fourth-and-1 with, you know, his franchise quarterback?
“They overcome bad coaching sometimes,” the coach said of his players. “That's on me.”
A team made of lesser stuff crumbles after just one of those events, never mind all of the above plus the 6-2 defending champs competing in an emotional cauldron. The Giants made no secret that they wished to play hero for a day, coach Tom Coughlin calling this “as disappointing a loss as we've had around here in a long time” mostly for that reason.
But these Steelers don't crumble. And they didn't.
Are they back?
Maybe not all the way, but …
“We're getting better,” Heath Miller said. “And if that means we're getting back to Steelers football, we'll take it.”