The sixth seed in the AFC playoff race is being treated like a hot potato—nobody wants to take hold of it. Last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers had an opportunity to seize control of the final playoff spot but fell to the Baltimore Ravens.
But even sitting at 5-7 with four games remaining, the 2013-14 season is still not a lost cause, and the Steelers still have plenty to play for.
The fact that they even have five wins is quite an accomplishment considering their play early in the season. Four straight losses to start the year put the Steelers in a deep hole that they have slowly dug out of to get back into contention.
But it hasn’t been easy.
"Right now, you could say we're the worst team in the league," Roethlisberger said on September 20 following the Steelers' 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in London. "That hurts."
Nothing creates more distractions than losing football, and that is exactly what was going on in Pittsburgh.
Rumors really began to swirl in early November when NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Roethlisberger was unhappy with what was going on with the Steelers and that he would request a trade.
As expected, Roethlisberger had to address this issue, and he adamantly denied these rumors. But with this over his head, he easily could have been distracted from the task at hand. That was not the case.
Roethlisberger had his best game of the season the very next week against the Detroit Lions. He went off as he threw for 367 yards and four touchdowns while completing 64.4 percent of his passes in a thrilling 37-27 victory.
If that is being distracted, maybe the Steelers need some to hear some more rumors.
As Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required) explained, Roethlisberger doesn’t let these kinds of things bother him, as he is right at home when on the field, no matter what is going on around him.
This is why the team’s latest distraction—Mike Tomlin’s near run-in with Ravens returner Jacoby Jones—will not be an issue.
There is nothing they can do about what is going on off the field with their head coach. What they can control is their performance on the field. Look no further than what Roethlisberger has done.
Roethlisberger could answer questions until he is blue in the face, but he knows in Pittsburgh and in the NFL, it is all about winning football games, and by doing so, problems seem to go away. That will be no different if the Steelers take care of business on the field.
After Tomlin was fined, Roethlisberger had little to say to reporters, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required).
"That's something Coach Tomlin deals with," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We'll be ready to play ball. That's what we're here for."
That is what they are there for. Amazingly enough, there has been little talk of the Roethlisberger trade rumors since he has been playing lights out.
It will be up to him and the other veterans to focus the younger players on the task at hand. Ike Taylor has sent the message, according to Teresa Varley of Steelers.com.
“It’s like a playoff, must-win atmosphere,” Taylor said. “Both teams are in the hunt for the playoffs. Miami is putting themselves in position and so are we. This is a huge game. It’s going to tell a lot. This game is like a playoff game.”
We are going to learn a lot about the young players as they play “December football” for the first time. Will guys like Cameron Heyward, Jason Worilds, Cortez Allen, David DeCastro, Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams be able to rise to the occasion?
Each has had moments this season, but moments in December mean a whole lot more.
While individual moments may be great, it will be the collective effort that really matters. That effort has dramatically improved in recent weeks, and it has been evident in the overall record.
Over each quarter of the season, the Steelers have improved in wins, points and turnovers. Now the question is, do they have a perfect finish in them?
|Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterly Performance Statistics|
|Games||Wins||Losses||Average Points Scored Per Game||Average Points Allowed Per Game||Takeaways||Giveaways|
|Pro Football Reference|
That will be tough.
The offensive line is once again in shambles with at least two starters expected to miss the game on Sunday, and there are key injuries on the defensive side of the ball with LaMarr Woodley and Steve McLendon ailing.
But with injuries comes opportunity. Who knew that Worilds not only would fill in for Woodley, but also thrive? Is there another surprise on the roster just waiting for that moment to break out? Now is their chance.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a proud football team. There is a solid core of veterans who have won a lot of football games over their careers and are eager to get back to the playoffs after a yearlong absence.
But even if they don’t make it, there will be no quit, as they keep the focus on winning each and every week. That focus on winning games will put all distractions aside and help the Steelers to a strong finish to their season.
Whether or not it will be enough to make the playoffs is still to be determined, but the Steelers must keep their focus on the field as they look to continue their recent surge and build momentum for the 2014 season.