Playoffs come early for Steelers
For the Steelers, it's a season in a Sunday.
They don't do this very often in Pittsburgh — wait until the holidays to determine whether they're in or out of the playoffs. It's only the second time in 10 years it's come down to this, and a number of the Steelers haven't been in a must-win game until January.
“You just hope they see it in you,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “You hope they see the intensity in your eyes and the importance of the game from you and ride off that wave.”
Riding into Heinz Field on a self-made wave are the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), winners of five of six. A streak that began not long after they lost to the Steelers, 24-17, on Oct. 21 has put them tantalizingly close to making the playoffs in successive seasons for the first time since 1981-82.
If they end a five-game losing streak to the Steelers (7-7), they're in.
But what coach Mike Tomlin calls a playoff game in December seems to have refocused the Steelers following their 27-24 overtime loss in Dallas a week ago. There are numerous playoff scenarios, but the Steelers realize it all comes down to winning — something they've done only once in five games.
“We control our own destiny still,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We have nothing to be down about. If we go in the tank right now, we'll be sitting at home in January.”
“We're a dangerous team because we're focused like it's the playoffs right now, and most teams aren't,” running back Isaac Redman said.
The Steelers played their best-balanced game all season in Cincinnati. Jonathan Dwyer ran for 122 yards, Bengals star receiver A.J. Green was limited to a single catch, and Andy Dalton threw for only 105 yards on 28 attempts.
Dalton, only the third quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 20 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons, hasn't been as hot as his team. He has only three touchdown passes and three interceptions this month, and he's 0-3 in his career against the Steelers.
“I expect to play better myself, and I'm going to play better,” Dalton said.
With Ike Taylor (ankle) still out, Dalton likely will target Green against cornerback Keenan Lewis, who has a sore hip.
Being balanced could prove important against a Bengals defense that has allowed only 12.5 points over its past six games. The Steelers are 6-1 when they run for at least 95 yards, but Dwyer has only 100 yards in his last three games.
Roethlisberger appeared to be locked in against Dallas, throwing for 339 yards a week after he returned from a three-week injury layoff. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller have a combined 35 catches and four touchdowns in those two games.
Think how Roethlisberger might have played had he liked the play-calling.
“A lot of our guys have been here before,” he said. “They understand this is a playoff game for us. And I think that helps us.”
But not many Steelers have played in a game that could singularly determine whether an entire season is judged to be a success or failure.
They will Sunday.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.