PITTSBURGH (AP) – It sounded wishful thinking at best. At worst, a throw-away line for a coach preparing for impending disappointment.
“I am able to tell myself everything” Mike Tomlin said last week when asked about the seemingly unlikely series of events the Pittsburgh Steelers would have to unfold if they were to find their way into the playoffs.
What might have sounded naive or trite, however, instead gave a glimpse into Tomlin’s relentless tunnel vision that helped him bring the Steelers (9-7-1) to their 10th – and by far most unlikely – appearance after the season during his 15th birthday. Years on the sidelines.
In the past four months, Tomlin’s message hasn’t changed through injuries, unusually one-sided losses, and a string of wins the only salvation of which has been the bottom line – oh and that weird connection with Detroit.
Minnesota halfway down at 29? Go on. Overrun by Cincinnati … twice? Go on. Destroyed in Kansas City the day after Christmas? Go on.
By comparison, Baltimore needed a win in the regular season finals, an Indianapolis loss to a team that disguised such bad fans as clowns and the game between the Chargers and Raiders didn’t end in a draw – which it almost did – seemed doable.
“Whether we win or lose, whether we were up or down, it was always the same attitude, and that’s hard to find.” said wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, who has amazingly gone from being a punt-return specialist to being one of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite options. “You never change your ways. You know that you just have to win. “
Something the Steelers have somehow done nine times this season – the 15th straight season under Tomlin’s supervision, the longest by a coach to begin a career in NFL history – despite being in all the major statistical categories in the bottom third of the league ended up. Well, except for the most important thing.
“I think it shows something about this team that you can keep fighting and never give up.” said Röthlisberger.
It’s a mindset that has served as the backbone of Tomlin’s philosophy since the day he replaced Bill Cowher in January 2007. He was 34 years old at the time and largely anonymous. Two decades later, Tomlin’s steadfastness keeps his team calm and tends to unsettle opposing coaches.
How else could one explain Cleveland and Tennessee – two of the NFL’s best running teams – who instead turn to their quarterbacks when facing the worst rush defense in the league?
The Titans flipped it four times and lost, despite only allowing 168 yards. The Browns seemed to forget they had Nick Chubb and instead tried to let Baker Mayfield beat the Steelers. It didn’t work both times.
If any of those three games go the other way, Pittsburgh’s season is over. If the Detroit Lions have their regular kicker in place of the substitute attempting an overtime field goal during that strange game in November, Pittsburgh’s season will be over. If Baltimore coach John Harbaugh goes for overtime instead of 2 and the win at the rivals’ first clash in December, Pittsburgh’s season will (maybe) be over.
It is not. The Steelers with their minus 55 point differential, an offense that stutters a lot more often than it seems, a defense that TJ Watt, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and apparently not much else play on.
Your reward is a trip to the Chiefs (12-5) on Sunday, the same place where Kansas City defeated Pittsburgh 36-10 three weeks ago, a win that seemed to highlight the gap between the two clubs.
Despite being listed as underdogs with 13 points, they – amazingly – have a chance to fill that void, thanks in large part to a coach who appears to have a mystical ability to make things happen.
“We have a lot of warts” said Tomlin. “But we are here.”
Rather who works. Watt broke Michael Strahan’s single season sack record at 22 1/2 by beating Baltimore’s Tyler Huntley on Sunday. If the potential NFL Defensive Player of the Year is nearly healthy, he can make up for Pittsburgh’s glaring shortcomings, though he must have more leverage against the Chiefs than he did the first time he was restricted to tackle.
WHAT IS NOT
The offense can be difficult to observe. Roethlisberger’s 6.2 yards per attempt is the lowest of his 18-year career due to a combination of things. The Steelers aren’t equipped to win a shootout. Any chance to upset Kansas City depends heavily on defense forcing Patrick Mahomes to make mistakes.
McCloud started the season with 28 goals during his three-year career. Roethlisberger has looked in his direction 66 times this season and McCloud’s 39th and last reception came with a 10-yard win on the fourth and 8th in overtime, which established Chris Boswell’s winning goal.
The Steelers signed a two-year deal with Tackle Zach Banner during the off-season believing he would make a full recovery from a torn cruciate ligament in his right knee. Banner appears healthy after a setback at training camp but remains on the sidelines.
It says the team chose to start Joe Haeg in the left tackle against the Ravens as rookie Dan Moore Jr. is unable to walk instead of moving Chukwuma Okorafor from right to left, to create an opportunity for banners.
Rookie running back Najee Harris played with a sleeve on his right elbow for most of the game after injuring herself in the first quarter.
0 – the number of lost seasons the Steelers have had since Roethlisberger was selected with the eleventh overall pick in the 2004 draft.
Head to Arrowhead to claim their first playoff win since an 18-16 win at the same stadium in the 2016 divisional playoffs.