Each of the last two Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl seasons have included an emotional victory in December, a win that wraps fans in the spirit of the Steelers like giddy little kids in the spirit of Christmas.
The Steelers got that kind of win Thursday against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.
Thursday's 14-3 win might not be enough for the Steelers (10-3) to catch the Ravens in the AFC North. They must win their last three games and get a Ravens loss, to repeat as division champs.
The toughest of the Steelers' remaining assignments is Dec. 19 at San Francisco (10-2). It will be even tougher if the Steelers are without Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a high-ankle sprain Thursday night.
If Roethlisberger is out against the 49ers, it's likely the Steelers will need to win three road playoff games to get back to the Super Bowl. A win over the lowly Browns (4-9) isn't enough evidence that they can do that.
Still, Thursday's victory was the type of electrifying late-season win that has been characteristic of recent Steelers Super Bowl seasons.
In these types of Steelers wins, the game starts out as a dud, then turns dramatic.
In 2008, the Steelers trailed the Dallas Cowboys 13-3 heading into the fourth quarter. They pulled to within at 13-6. Then they scored 14 points in 19 seconds when Heath Miller tied the game with a touchdown and Deshea Townsend intercepted a Tony Romo pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown with 1:51 left.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin celebrated this imminent vanquishing of the Cowboys (which like Thursday's win made them 10-3) by twirling his headset in the air almost like a lasso while Heinz Field rocked.
Last season, the Steelers offense was stuck in the mud in Baltimore. It took Troy Polamalu's Lufthansa-like heist of Joe Flacco to get the Steelers within striking distance for the winning touchdown and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Unlike the two aforementioned Steelers victories, the Steelers didn't have to come from behind Thursday. They never relinquished the lead after Jerricho Cotchery's 11-yard touchdown catch from Roethlisberger made it 7-3 with about three minutes left in the first quarter.
Then, a week after one of the most prolific second quarters in Steelers history, came perhaps one of the team's darkest second quarters in recent memory.
First there were the Hines Ward and Heath Miller fumbles deep in Browns territory that kept Cleveland in the game and made a mere footnote of Polamalu's first interception of the season.
Then, Roethlisberger went down in pain. It looked like his latest acting role until he was helped off the field. The NFL Network replay showed the horrific way his left ankle was bent, further confirming that Ben was not pulling a Ben Kingsley.
Charlie Batch was ridiculously bad in Roethlisberger's place (a one-legged Roethlisberger in San Francisco would be better than Batch). It looked like the Steelers' fortunes would ride on the shoulders of their defense until Roethlisberger was seen taking practice snaps from Doug Legursky just before the start of the second half.
Where I watched the game, that sight prompted Steelers fans to chant "Here We Go, Steelers, Here We Go!" with the same fervor that Americans chanted "USA! USA!" when the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets in 1980.
Roethlisberger came back in the second half, but moved around like he stepped in a bucket as the score remained a perilous 7-3 against a team much less formidable than the one with CCCP across its chests.
At least the Steelers were winning the field position battle—until Mike Adams intercepted Roethlisberger and returned it to the Browns 44, midway through the fourth quarter.
We have learned this season that you don't exactly have to be John Elway or Joe Montana to mount a game-tying or game-winning drive on the Steelers defense in the fourth quarter. Colt McCoy had more than seven minutes to drive the Browns 56 yards for the go-ahead points.
McCoy, Seneca Wallace and even James Harrison, with a roughing-the-passer penalty, conspired to get the Browns as close as the Steelers' 6-yard line. Then, just when Steelers fans started to wonder how a hobbling Roethlisberger could navigate the Steelers close enough for even a game-tying field goal after the Browns scored, William Gay reached out to intercept a badly thrown McCoy ball in the end zone with 3:19 left.
Fourteen seconds later, in a turnabout so similar to the one at Heinz Field three years and a day earlier, Antonio Brown caught a 79-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger, giving the Steelers a 14-3 lead.
This time, there was no wild headset wielding. Just an understated point to the heavens by a weary Roethlisberger after a long, hard and emotional night.
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