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Party like it's 1989? Steelers need lots of help to make playoffs

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Troy Polamalu fights for the blocked third-quarter field-goal attempt with the Packers' Mason Crosby on Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Green Bay, Wis.

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NFL playoff odds

Dolphins 59.0 percent

Ravens 18.7 percent

Chargers 13.4 percent

Steelers 8.9 percent

Source: Football Outsiders

NFL Sunday odds

Steelers -7 vs. Browns

Bengals -5.5 vs. Ravens

Dolphins -6.5 vs. Jets

Chargers -9.5 vs. Chiefs

Source: America's Line

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Alan Robinson
Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

They've overcome a frightful start to remain in playoff contention until the last weekend of the season, but the Steelers don't need some mere holiday-week help to get in. They need a Christmas miracle.

First, the Steelers (7-8) need to beat the Cleveland Browns (4-11) on Sunday at Heinz Field. As coach Mike Tomlin said Monday, “There are a lot of scenarios, but our approach will be the same as it has been, largely, for the last two weeks. We made this bed. I like the way the group is laying in it.”

But even if the Steelers beat the Browns for the 19th time in 21 games, the Dolphins (8-7) must lose at home to the Jets (7-8), the Ravens (8-7) must lose at the Bengals (10-5) and the Chargers (8-7) must lose at home to the Chiefs (11-4).

“But nothing has changed from our standpoint and our approach to the game,” safety Troy Polamalu said. “It's a week-by-week thing.”

On Sunday, it might be hour-to-hour — just like it was in 1989 when the Steelers needed even more games to fall their way on the NFL's final weekend. And they all did.

The 1989 Steelers also got off to a terrible start, losing to the Browns, 51-0, and the Bengals, 41-10.

But they recovered to finish 9-7, winning at Tampa Bay on Christmas Eve then waiting to see what else played out around the league.

The Raiders (8-7) had to lose at the Giants (11-4) and did. The Colts (8-7) had to lose to the Saints (8-7) and did. The Dolphins had to lose at home to the Chiefs (7-7-1) and did. And the Bengals had to lose a season-ending Monday night game at the Vikings (9-6).

The Vikings jumped out to a 19-0 lead in the Christmas night game, and current Steelers announcers Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley, Steelers offensive linemen at the time, remember calling each other to set up car-pooling plans for practice the following day.

But the Boomer Esiason-led Bengals surged back to within 22-21 in the fourth quarter, and momentum looked to be theirs. Wolfley and Ilkin talked again about what a shame it was that the Steelers' season was ending despite five wins in the final six games.

However, Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson threw a late touchdown pass, and Minnesota held on to win 29-21. The Steelers not only made the playoffs, they won an overtime wild-card game the following weekend at Houston, which had beaten them twice during the season.

So what are the Steelers' chances of getting that kind of help this week? They already have escaped this past weekend, when they won at the Packers, and the Ravens and Dolphins had to lose and the Jets had to win. Every game went their way.

Jets at Dolphins: Are the Jets rallying around Rex (Ryan), who is floating with his players the possibility he might lose his job? The Dolphins looked to have all kinds of momentum after beating the Steelers and Patriots only to be shut out by the Bills hours after their sleep was interrupted by a middle-of-the-night fire alarm in their Buffalo hotel. The Steelers must hope there's no Dolphins wake-up call Sunday.

Ravens at Bengals: The Bengals clinched the AFC North by beating Minnesota. But they still have much to play for Sunday, including a possible AFC No. 3 seeding. Of course, the Ravens do, too. They don't want to miss the postseason a year after winning the Super Bowl.

Chiefs at Chargers: The Chiefs have lost four of six since winning their first nine. They badly need some momentum heading into the postseason. But they'll play a wild-card game next week, and coach Andy Reid said Monday he might rest key regulars. This is a must-win game for the Chargers, and it's at home. But remember: The 2004 Steelers also played backups in a season-ending game at Buffalo, and they knocked the Bills out of the postseason.

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

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