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Steelers start 2nd half in AFC driver's seat

Joe Rutter
| Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, 7:06 p.m.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin urges on his defense against the Lions late in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017 at Ford Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin urges on his defense against the Lions late in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017 at Ford Field.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass during the fourth quarter against the Lions Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass during the fourth quarter against the Lions Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit.
The Lions' Golden Tate fumbles the ball and the Steelers' Artie Burns recovers it in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017 at Ford Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Lions' Golden Tate fumbles the ball and the Steelers' Artie Burns recovers it in the fourth quarter Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017 at Ford Field.
Steelers defensive end Tyson Alualu brings down Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on fourth-and-goal during the third quarter Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Tyson Alualu brings down Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on fourth-and-goal during the third quarter Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit.
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster catches a touchdown pass in front of the Lions' Quandre Diggs during the third quarter Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster catches a touchdown pass in front of the Lions' Quandre Diggs during the third quarter Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit.

The Steelers have no need to look over their shoulder if they wish to take the direct route to Minnesota, site of the Super Bowl in February.

Entering the second half of the season, winning the division shouldn't present much of a road block. The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals are so far behind the Steelers they could get lapped before the holidays arrive.

Earning a first-round bye or getting the top seed in the conference shouldn't require any rubbernecking, either. At 6-2, the Steelers hold the top spot and play the only other 6-2 team, New England, at Heinz Field in December. The Steelers already have beaten AFC West-leading Kansas City and are a game ahead of AFC South co-leaders Tennessee and Jacksonville.

The stated goal that began in spring workouts was for the Steelers to have the road to the Super Bowl go through Heinz Field. Halfway through the season, the Steelers remain in the proverbial driver's seat, which is just fine with coach Mike Tomlin.

“I've always felt like I've been in the driver's seat,” Tomlin said with a laugh Tuesday while addressing the media at his weekly news conference. “That's just my mentality, even when I'm in the back seat.”

It's been a while since the Steelers sat up front, even in the passenger's seat, at this juncture of the season.

Last year, the Steelers were 4-4 at the midpoint. They would lose another game, running their streak to four in a row, before reeling off seven consecutive wins en route to the division title and 11-5 record.

In 2015, the Steelers needed a 6-2 second-half record to finish 10-6 and get a wild-card berth. In 2014, they also went 6-2 to edge Cincinnati and Baltimore for the division title with an 11-5 mark.

Even in 2011, the last time the Steelers started 6-2, they went on the road in the wild-card round after finishing second in the AFC North despite a 12-4 record.

The last time the Steelers had a first-round bye was 2010 as the No. 2 seed. The last time they were the top seed was 2004, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season.

“The ultimate goal is just getting in, but if you can get a one or two seed to get the bye and get some rest and get healed if you need it, that's an added bonus,” Roethlisberger said on his weekly 93.7-FM radio segment. “We've seen what it means to go on the road and do it. It's been a while since we've done it here at home. So I'd like to do that.”

That cause was aided over the weekend while the Steelers rested. They watched the Ravens and Bengals lose to provide a two-and-a-half game separation over Baltimore and a three-game cushion over Cincinnati. The Chiefs lost their third in a row, to fall to 6-3.

“It's nice, but we still have a long way to go, obviously,” Roethlisberger said. “If we were having this conversation with two weeks to go, it would feel a lot nicer.”

There will be no need for scoreboard watching if the Steelers keep winning. To do that, they must break from recent history in games following their bye week. The Steelers have lost their last three games when returning from the bye and are 6-4 in post-bye games during Tomlin's 10 seasons.

The Steelers open the second half at Indianapolis (3-6). After playing the Colts, the Steelers make their annual Thursday night appearance when they face the Titans (5-3) on short rest. The Steelers' history of dropping road games to teams with losing records is well-documented, the most recent example being the 23-17 overtime loss at Chicago in Week 3.

“This is like a trap game for us,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “There's a lot of noise out there. People are expecting us to win. We have to go out and execute our game plan and not shoot ourself in the foot.

“That's been our problem this year, not playing up to the level of the games we are supposed to win.”

Among the final eight games, Tennessee and New England are the only opponents with winning records. Both games are at Heinz Field, where the Steelers will play five of their final seven games.

“It's on us,” Roethlisberger said. “The other thing to me is it's Week 9, and we've had three home games. That's a big deal. … I like that, to be playing games in front of our fans down the stretch.”

And, if all goes according to plan, the Steelers will playing in front of the home crowd two more times in January.

Not that they are looking that far ahead.

“We have to keep understanding that it's one week at a time,” veteran wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “You can't think about what we're doing in Minnesota for the Super Bowl. We've got the Colts.”

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

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