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Steelers put themselves in position to earn wild-card spot

| Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers center Fenando Velasco snaps to running back Le'Veon Bell in the first quarter against the Ravens on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, at Heinz Field.

They were written off as being over the hill, washed up and done for the season following an 0-4 start and, later, a punishing and record-setting loss to the Patriots.

Somehow, relying on the perseverance veteran players acquire while dealing with unexpected defeat, they've revived their season with a remarkable turnaround perhaps only they expected.

Pardon Steelers center Fernando Velasco for feeling as if he has been here before, because he has.

For the first time in their competitive and often combustive 18-season rivalry, the Steelers (5-6) and Ravens (5-6) will play an immensely consequential game Thursday night in Baltimore when both own losing records. The winner not only will reach .500 but will emerge as the frontrunner for the AFC's sixth and final playoff spot.

It's only the second time since the former Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens that they've met the Steelers so late in the season with both teams owning losing records. The only other time was 1999, when both sat out the playoffs.

“We need this game. It's a must win for us,” Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones said Monday. “That's how I look at it.”

The Steelers couldn't have been expected to be playing a meaningful game on Thanksgiving when they were 0-4, yet Velasco was impressed by how committed they were to turning their season around following their winless September.

“At 0-4, you can throw it in the tank,” Velasco said. “But I can honestly say nobody on this team did. We're still coming to work and excited. The attitude (was good), it was still a positive environment. Not a lot of 0-4 teams are still positive coming to work.

“But the guys knew, ‘Hey, we've got a great team, we can be good, we can move the ball on offense, the defense can do their thing.' Everybody felt comfortable and confident in themselves we could get it turned around.”

Not even the 55-31 loss to the Patriots sidetracked the Steelers' season; they've responded by winning three in a row.

Velasco went through a similar turnaround with the 2009 Titans. Not only did they start 0-4, a potentially ruinous 59-0 loss to the Patriots left them with an 0-6 record. But they won eight of their final 10 to finish 8-8.

These Steelers want to do better than that.

“It shocked me, to be honest with you,” Velasco said of the Steelers' demeanor following their 0-4 start. “I've been 0-4 in my career, but it was a different kind of 0-4. The attitudes were still positive, coming to work every day, trying to get better. I think that's a credit to the head coach (Mike Tomlin) and his mentality, but also the talent on this team. This team knows it's not an 0-4 team.”

If the Steelers can win in Baltimore for the second successive season, they'll be a 6-6 team, with only one road game remaining.

The turnaround also is a credit to Tomlin's “tunnel vision,” as Velasco called it, to force the Steelers to focus on that week's game, and only that week's game.

Or, in this case, this week's two games.

“Absolutely,” Jones said. “You can have the roughest starts but it's all about how you finish. ... We've got to continue to do what we've been doing, and that's preparing well and playing disciplined and playing with a lot of excitement.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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