Victories buoy Steelers' hopes of reaching postseason
They're not even close to being in it yet, not at 2-4 — a record they've had only twice in the past 10 seasons. This isn't where the Steelers wanted to be, expected to be or even dared to worry they might be.
But it could have been worse.
They could have lost Sunday to the Ravens and watched their season effectively end before Halloween, leaving them little to play for over the next 10 weeks except internal pride and draft position.
No, as coach Mike Tomlin said, beating Baltimore, 19-16, in the most typical of Ravens-Steelers games — physical, close and down to the last minute — made them “relevant” again in a season that was slipping away.
“We're not out of it. I think that's the big thing,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We can come in this week and say, ‘We won the game, now we have an opportunity to win another game that pushes us a step closer to our goal.' ”
That goal is?
“Being in the hunt,” Clark said.
To get there, the Steelers have much work to do, especially with road games upcoming against the Raiders (2-4) and Patriots (5-2). They've lost their past two in Oakland and seven of their last 10 to New England.
“We've got two wins. Now, we've got to get to three,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “That's all that matters.”
If the Steelers can reach midseason without being all but mathematically eliminated from the AFC playoff race, they have a chance of being more than relevant during a second half that begins with home games against the Bills (3-4) and Lions (4-3).
Five of their final eight are at Heinz Field — including three of four in December, when the Dolphins (3-3), Bengals (5-2) and Browns (3-4) visit.
Their road games are in Cleveland, Baltimore and, in the only trip of any distance, Green Bay.
But they're going to need help: They made the playoffs only once the previous 12 times they started 2-4.
Since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978, only 18 of 213 teams that were 2-4 made the playoffs, or just more than 8 percent.
The fast starts by the Chiefs (7-0) and Broncos (6-1) are a major problem.
Barring a monumental collapse, both will be in the playoffs — the Chiefs probably need only three more wins to get there — and that would leave only one remaining AFC wild-card spot. Seven AFC teams are at .500 or are a game above or below.
The Steelers still have a chance in the AFC North, where they trail the Browns (3-4) and Ravens by only a half-game, but even a few more wins by the Bengals (5-2) will make them difficult to catch.
And the Steelers already have played and lost to Cincinnati, leaving only one more “double jeopardy” game, as Clark calls them.
“It gives you an opportunity to give a team you're competing directly against a loss, but it also gives you a win,” Clark said. “You have to win those. You can get a lot of things accomplished.”
The Steelers have four more such division games: at Cleveland and Baltimore and at home against Cleveland and Cincinnati.
“There's still a lot of football left to be played, and we've still got to get back in the hunt,” wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “We've got to keep it going. We've still got a long way to go.”
But it's better than having nowhere to go.