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Steelers control own playoff fate down stretch

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, 6:36 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the media during his weekly news conference Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats doesn't want a repeat of last season.

Sure, he will take another playoff berth. He just doesn't want to follow the same scenario for the Steelers to get there.

On the final day of the regular season, the Steelers' path to the playoffs hinged on a win over Cleveland and hoping the 7-8 Buffalo Bills would defeat the 10-5 New York Jets.

“That wasn't a good feeling,” Moats said.

The Steelers took care of business against the three-win Browns. The Bills, of course, also came through with a 22-17 victory.

This year, the Steelers are out of the playoff picture heading into December — the Baltimore Ravens hold the tiebreaker for the division title — but can control their destiny over the final five weeks.

“It's an exciting time of the year,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “In our business, they say, ‘They remember December.' ”

After a 10-day break between games courtesy of a Thanksgiving game at Indianapolis, the Steelers will see if the month is a memorable one starting Sunday against the New York Giants at Heinz Field.

The Steelers entered the weekend with a half-game edge in the standings, but the Ravens erased that with a 19-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Ravens hold the tiebreaker based on their 21-14 win over the Steelers on Nov. 6.

“We'll work with that,” guard Ramon Foster said of the Steelers' 6-5 record. “We're still at the point in the season where we can be 11-5. That's what we're shooting for.”

To do that, the Steelers would need to finish the season on a seven-game winning streak, including a win over the Ravens on Christmas. Eleven wins would ensure the Steelers of a division title and a home playoff game.

“You never know how things will work out, but it's in our control,” guard David DeCastro said. “We're going to have a factor in it, and if we can win these games, especially the division ones, we have a good chance of being in.”

Strong finishes aren't new to the Steelers. Last year, they were 6-5 but won four of their final five. In 2014, they were 7-5 before reeling off four consecutive wins to claim the division title.

“This is when playoff races take form,” Tomlin said. “Guys fight and claw to be a team on the rise and state a case for themselves. It's an exciting time for competitors, and it's an exciting time for us.

“We're faced with a steep challenge this week.”

The Giants, riding a six-game winning streak, are 8-3 and represent the hottest team remaining on the Steelers' schedule. The Buffalo Bills (6-5) and Ravens are the other remaining opponents with winning records.

Still, with five losses, the Steelers don't have much margin for error.

“There can't be any lag on what we're doing moving forward,” Foster said. “That's executing, blocking, catching, running, the whole nine yards. Everybody has to be in tune with what we're doing.”

Winning the AFC North is the Steelers' most realistic path to the postseason. In the wild-card race, they are two games behind the Kansas City Chiefs and one in back of the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins. The Steelers own the tiebreaker over Kansas City but were beaten by Miami.

The combined record of the Steelers' remaining opponents is 23-32-1, a number inflated by the 0-12 Browns. The Ravens' final five opponents are 30-22-1, and their schedule includes games against the Dolphins (7-4) and New England Patriots (9-2).

“We can't focus on (the Ravens),” Moats said. “If you're worried about what they are doing, it's going to take the focus off what you should be doing. For us, we understand it's about winning our games.”

And it starts Sunday against the Giants.

“We've got our work cut out for us,” Tomlin said, “but what other way would you have it?”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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