Steelers still have something worth playing for
Relevant for how long?
Despite a 5-7 record and a narrow loss in Baltimore that has resonated for 10 days, the Steelers still have something to play for Sunday against the Miami Dolphins (6-6) at Heinz Field.
And that something is to be relevant — using coach Mike Tomlin's catchword — next week when the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (8-4) come to town in a game that could have true meaning.
And, yes, relevance.
“It just means everybody is pretty bad, I guess,” safety Ryan Clark said of the Steelers being in the AFC wild-card race. “We're still right in the thick of it. I'm excited that the games matter. We play a team that's fighting for the same position we are.”
The Ravens (6-6), Dolphins and Tennessee Titans (5-7) are ahead of the Steelers in the chase for the second and final wild-card spot. But if the Steelers beat the Dolphins — defensive end Cam Heyward said it would be an upset if they lose — they'll own the tiebreaker should the teams finish with the same record.
The Steelers are finished with their season series against Baltimore, but the Ravens might have the toughest remaining schedule of the playoff hopefuls. After playing the Minnesota Vikings (3-8-1) on Sunday to finish up a three-game homestand, they play at Detroit (7-5), at home against New England (9-3) and at the Bengals.
The Dolphins still must play the Patriots. The Titans play Sunday at Denver (10-2).
“We've got to win this game. There are a lot of implications going on with this game,” Heyward said. “If we can win this game, it would really benefit our team and put some teams out of the competition for this last playoff spot. It's huge.”
The Steelers have a seemingly favorable schedule, with three home games in the final four weeks.
After playing Dec. 22 at Green Bay (5-6-1), reeling without injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers, they close out at home against the Cleveland Browns (4-8).
But, as Clark said, “Nothing matters if we don't win games.”
They were doing that, winning three in a row before the 22-20 loss in Baltimore that will be remembered most for Tomlin's sideline sidestep that nearly put him in the direct path of Ravens kick returner Jacoby Jones.
His players insist Tomlin's misstep and the $100,000 fine it generated haven't been a distraction. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said the players barely discussed it.
“We all just want to move on from it,” Clark said.
The return of former Steelers star receiver Mike Wallace with Miami might have generated more of a buzz had the game been earlier this season, but he's nearly a full year removed from his last game in a Pittsburgh uniform.
Wallace got off to a slow start in Miami, but he has 26 catches and two touchdowns, one each the last two weeks, in his past five games. Brian Hartline actually is the leading receiver for Ryan Tannehill, who is going for his third straight 300-yard passing game.
The Steelers just would like to have a 100-yard rushing game from a running back. They haven't had one in 20 games, or since Isaac Redman ran for 147 yards at the New York Giants last season. It's the longest ongoing streak in the NFL. The Steelers haven't gone a full season without a 100-yard rusher since 1969.
Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell expects to play despite suffering a concussion in Baltimore. He has 153 yards in his past two games plus another 81 yards on receptions.
Ben Roethlisberger is 4-0 against the Dolphins, who are 0-3 in Pittsburgh since winning here in 1990.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.