Steelers playing like destiny's team
The Steelers have already clinched the AFC North and a first-round playoff bye
By beating Tennessee, Pittsburgh would have the upper hand on the No. 1 seed
BALTIMORE -- Win one like this, and you're lucky. Win two, and you're blessed. Build an entire season on the kind of razor's edge victory the Pittsburgh Steelers have specialized in these past four months, and, well, you start to think you might be special enough to ride the wave all the way to that big confetti shower at the Super Bowl.
That's what these Steelers are beginning to believe. And after this one, I can't say that I blame them. In the wake of yet another improbable, last-gasp win, the Steelers are taking on the look of a team that won't be denied and senses a destiny about itself.
With one ridiculously clutch 92-yard drive, the Steelers won another "ridiculously tough football game'' -- head coach Mike Tomlin's words -- and secured for themselves the AFC North championship, a first-round playoff bye, and their first victory in Baltimore since 2002. Nothing about Pittsburgh's 13-9 conquest (RECAP | BOX SCORE) of the Ravens was easy, but what has been in this grind-it-out Steelers season, which now includes six of their 11 wins by seven points or fewer?
"We found a way,'' said Tomlin, echoing the same refrain he used last week, when Pittsburgh rallied from a 10-point deficit at home against Dallas, winning 20-13 after a pair of touchdowns just 19 seconds apart in the game's final 2:10. "We hung together, and hopefully that's the signature of Steelers football for '08. I know we've been in a bunch of these, and we've found a way to see our way out of some of them. I'm just excited and happy for these guys, and excited about the challenges that lie ahead for us.''
For the second straight week, I watched the Steelers hang a puny three points on the board in the first half and then spring to life in the fourth quarter, waiting until the dying moments of the game to make it theirs. This time the outcome wasn't decided until Ben Roethlisberger, running for his life on 3rd and goal, fired a very controversial and replay-reviewed 4-yard touchdown pass to receiver Santonio Holmes with 43 seconds left.
Initially ruled a catch but not a score -- which would have set up the mother of all fourth-down decisions for Pittsburgh -- the call was changed to a touchdown after referee Walt Coleman decided Holmes had indeed broken the plane of the goal with the ball. It was a questionable reversal from my vantage point, but I guess we should have expected it. Things are just falling the Steelers' way in 2008. Or more accurately, they're imposing their will on the part of the football game that's there for the taking and waiting to be won.
This is a team with a No. 1 ranked defense and an emerging belief that all things are possible. Even if it takes driving 92 yards in 12 plays, with the game on the line, and the entire calculus of the AFC North race and maybe the top of the AFC playoff field hanging in the balance.
"This one was unique; securing the division title in the home of our rival,'' said Tomlin, who's now 2-for-2 in AFC North titles in his two-year Steelers tenure. "It was a big-time regular-season football game. It was about as big as a regular-season football game can get.''
True, but because the Steelers hung in, hung around and found a way to win it, there's maybe even a bigger regular-season game on tap next week in the AFC. Having already wrapped up a first-round bye, the Steelers are now in position to get greedy and go for the biggest prize you can win in December: the AFC's No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Pittsburgh (11-3) travels to Tennessee (12-2) next week, and thanks to the Titans' 13-12 loss at Houston earlier Sunday, the Steelers can take over the top spot with a win.
At that point, the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC would have to go through Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, where the Steelers are 5-2 this season, with three wins in a row. Pittsburgh has won five straight overall, and in the eyes of Roethlisberger, they're playing with house money at this point.
"To me personally, there's no pressure,'' Roethlisberger said of next week's trip to Nashville. "I mean, you go down to Tennessee, it's not like we have to win. We want to win, but we don't have to. I think we can go play more relaxed and have fun. I think it'll be another great game.''
In the postgame, Roethlisberger put his finger on what is rapidly becoming apparent about these Steelers. They've got some 2005-type mojo about them and are reminding some of the wild-card team that was 7-5 in early December that year, but got hot and won eight consecutive games en route to a Super Bowl-winning run.
"It's a special team,'' Big Ben said of the '08 Steelers, with their penchant for pulling off almost weekly miracles. "I've told people that this team is as close as any team since our Super Bowl year. We stay together, we don't point fingers, and we find a way. That's what this season has been about for us: Perseverance, struggling through it and finding a way to get it done.''
Tomlin put it beautifully, saying that his Steelers have repeatedly won the close games this season because "they felt the urgency of the moment.'' When Pittsburgh, down 9-6, took over with 3:36 to go, "there was an overwhelming sense that, 'We have to do this.''' Tomlin said. "That's how we play. When rubber meets the road, we have to deliver plays. And our quarterback wants to be the man who delivers them. Our quarterback [sets the tone].''
He did it once again on this night. Roethlisberger went a cool 7 of 11 for 89 yards of the 92 on the game-winning drive. On the deciding play, he ran around and bought enough time to make something good happen for his team.
"I was about a half-second from throwing that ball away,'' said Roethlisberger, who finished 22 of 40 with 246 yards passing, without an interception. "It feels good to clinch the division, to clinch a bye, and to do it in Baltimore. It's pretty special.''
I've had my doubts about the Steelers this season, with the offensive line's inability to protect Roethlisberger and the weekly pounding No. 7 has absorbed. They didn't look very Super Bowl-ready in an ugly Week 3 loss at Philadelphia, or when they dropped back-to-back home games to the Giants and Colts in Weeks 8 and 10.
But those five wins in a row mean the Steelers are playing better than anyone else in the AFC as the season reaches its denouement, and you can see the confidence building in a team that appears to be peaking at just the right time. The Steelers can beat anybody, anywhere about now -- especially if they have to do it in the game's final, frenzied moments.
"I'm sure it was great for television,'' Steelers receiver Hines Ward said of Sunday's win. "But to play and win this type of game helps us in the long run. And now we control our own destiny. We win next week and we're the No. 1 seed. It's going to be another five-star matchup.''
Steelers-Titans will be that, and more. And as the top two seeds in the AFC, Pittsburgh and Tennessee might well meet again in next month's AFC title game. After the rugged schedule the Steelers have played, and the high-wire act of a season they've put together, is there anything they won't be ready for from here on in?
"This is what we've been doing all year,'' Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "This is the type of game we play. I don't think there's a team in the league that's more battle-tested than us. We've played tough, tight games all year long, and won them. We feel like if you give us 10 points, we're good.''
These Steelers are indeed good; of that, there no longer can be any doubt. And if they're getting a bit lucky too, all the better. Super Bowls are won every year with just that equation.