The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their win streak to three in their 27-11 rout of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. The win brings their record to 5-6 on the year—a record good enough to include the Steelers in the AFC playoff picture with five games yet to play. In fact, if they continue to look as they have in their past three games, it may be hard to imagine a postseason without them.
It's a far cry from how the Steelers' season began, with four straight losses to open the year and problems aplenty on offense, defense and special teams. Though some of those problems still remain—they still can't run the ball well, the defense has given up big plays and punting, in particular, has left much to be desired—they've also managed to minimize their impact.
The biggest reason for the Steelers' turnaround is simple—turnovers. For the past two weeks, their offense hasn't turned the ball over once, while the defense has notched seven takeaways. It has also managed to score as a result.
*Bengals on bye in Week 12
Against the Browns, cornerback William Gay notched a pick-six as well as a strip sack of Browns quarterback Jason Campbell, which led to an Emmanuel Sanders touchdown pass. Then, a Troy Polamalu forced fumble and recovery led to a field goal. The Steelers also sacked Browns quarterbacks Campbell and Brandon Weeden a combined five times, with outside linebacker Jason Worilds having a career day with double-digit pressures.
On offense, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had two touchdown passes, bringing his two-week total up to six. Whatever issues the Steelers offensive line has had in pass protection this season seem to have melted away—Roethlisberger has been sacked just once in the past two weeks.
The Steelers haven't had much success protecting Roethlisberger from top-10 sack defenses this year, but the fact that the Browns did not add to their season total of 31 is a testament both to the line and to the play-calling. He is doing a better job of quickly getting the ball out of his hands and using the no-huddle to put defenses on their heels before the snap.
Though the line still needs work on run-blocking, at least the team is doing a better job keeping its most important offensive weapon protected. The Steelers of just a few weeks ago would have given up four or five sacks to this Browns defense. They seem to have found an offensive line formula that works, no matter how patched-together it looks on paper.
It may have taken nine weeks for the Steelers to identify their problems and find ways to fix them, but now that they have they are looking very much like the playoff contenders they've been for much of the last decade. Suddenly, they have too many weapons for opponents to contain and a fierce defense that can both attack quarterbacks and force turnovers.
It couldn't have happened at a better time.
*Records through Week 12
The AFC has just one wild-card playoff spot open, as the Kansas City Chiefs currently have the No. 5 seed spoken for with a 9-2 record. The battle for that final playoff spot should be fierce in the coming weeks, but the Steelers have more than just their hat in the ring with their Week 12 win.
They are among a large crop of 5-6 teams in the conference. Among them are the Baltimore Ravens, who defeated the New York Jets; the Jets, too, are 5-6 after the loss. The Miami Dolphins are also 5-6 at present after falling to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
As such, the next two weeks will be critical to Pittsburgh's playoff hopes. First, it takes on the Ravens on Thanksgiving night, and after that, it hosts the Miami Dolphins. If the Steelers can come out of Week 14 with a 7-6 record and defeats over two wild-card contenders, they will find themselves in a favorable position with a chance to control their own destiny.
Further, in Week 15, they face the Cincinnati Bengals, the current AFC North leader at 7-4. The Bengals take on the San Diego Chargers and Indianapolis Colts in the intervening weeks between their second and final meeting with the Steelers. Things get far more interesting for the Steelers should the Bengals be 7-6 at that time, or even 8-5.
If there's a good time of year for a team to be on a hot streak, it's now. The playoff pictures in both the AFC as a whole and the AFC North in general have resulted in a wide-open window through which the Steelers can march their way into the postseason. If the last three weeks are any indication, they seem to have grasped the situation perfectly and have taken advantage of the opportunity.
For the Steelers this year, it appears to be a case of not how they've started, but how they'll finish. If they can keep up their inspired play for the remainder of the season, they can spend their January on the football field as a dangerous team to beat rather than watching the playoffs as spectators like the rest of us.