Kevin Gorman: The story of the Steelers’ season is that they need help
The Pittsburgh Steelers play their most meaningful season finale in years against Cincinnati on Sunday at Heinz Field, and it’s nowhere near the most meaningful game in the AFC North this weekend.
Soak that up for a second.
Since the stadium opened in 2001, the Steelers have dominated their division by winning nine titles, with two Super Bowl championships and a Super Bowl loss. Now, their chances of making the playoffs hinge on the hope that they beat the Bengals, the Browns beat the Ravens in Baltimore and/or the Colts and Titans play to a tie.
That was the sobering serum that the Steelers had to digest this week: A season that started with Super Bowl expectations could go bust, even if they win, and their offseason could start earlier than anyone imagined.
Left guard Ramon Foster started soaking that in as he sat on a stool in the visiting locker room at the Superdome, worrying not about what this weekend means for the Steelers but instead the weekend that follows.
“The worst thing that can happen for a team that’s good enough to be in the playoffs is that first weekend at home, if you are, and saying to yourself, ‘Damn. I don’t want to be here. We could have beaten that team that’s playing,’” Foster said. “That’s one of the worst feelings ever: That you should be in. You have to get it, all or nothing.”
The Steelers have shown they can play with the NFL’s best teams, as evidenced by single-digit outcomes against the Chiefs, Chargers, Patriots and Saints. But they have to account for tying the Browns, losing at home to the Ravens and at Denver and Oakland. Three of those teams – possibly four – won’t make the playoffs.
“You’ve got to accept the wrongdoing that you did and the reason we’re in this position,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. “Once you come to grips with that, then you can move forward. We know we’ve got to play a hell of a football game to beat this team because they would like nothing better than to end our season with a dagger in our hearts. Those guys are going to come to play and I think all of us know that.”
That should serve as all the motivation the Steelers needed this week. But the cocksure attitude that carried them to six consecutive victories and a 7-2-1 record has suddenly vanished, as they received a reality check by losing four of their past five games.
The locker room at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex was subdued this week, the laughter and loose vibes replaced by a businesslike approach. The Steelers know they blew this season and that their playoff fate now rests in the hands of division rivals, an uncomfortable and unfamiliar position for a team that once bragged that it ran the AFC North.
“The Steelers, in the last 15 years, probably haven’t missed the playoffs very often,” Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said. “It’s one of those things that when it happens, it’s almost stunning and shocking for some.
“It takes a specific perspective to come in and find the motivation and the drive to put in the work and improve. We talked about how fate was in our hands and now it’s not, and how a couple things have to roll our way. But, even still, it can be deflating.
“It’s very difficult but, at the same time, it will improve your game, not even football but just life in general when you can overcome things when you’re not sitting on the mountain, when you’re struggling. It’s a tough lesson but it’s a valuable lesson.”
The Steelers say they are singularly focused on beating the battered Bengals, who have lost seven of nine since their Oct. 14 meeting, but a history lesson is valuable. The Steelers beat the winless Browns in the finale last year, and the Bengals beat the Ravens to knock them out of the playoff picture.
The Steelers are trying to soak that up, too.
“We’re human beings,” McDonald said. “We’ll have a moment where there’s no doubt, we’re in and the Browns are going to handle their business. And then there’s other moments when it’s like, man, this is not a great feeling, maybe some different words coming from different people.
“It’s one of those things that draws you in and builds you up as a team whenever you can and do overcome some of those negative feelings and negative vibes, when someone is maybe in the gutter in their mind with motivation and you’re able to pull them out. At the same time, too, when you see the moments that guys are really energetic considering the circumstances it’s really uplifting and a lot of fun.”
The Steelers are a team that admittedly hasn’t played a complete game this season. Now, they are down to their final 60 minutes, knowing that they need more than a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive, something they never dreamed of asking from an AFC rival.
The Steelers now need help. And they have to get it, all or nothing.
“We’re going to keep fighting through it, just stay positive at the end of the day and, hopefully, Sunday will tell the story for all of us,” Pouncey said, “and, hopefully, it’s the story we all want to hear.”
And not the story that put them in this predicament.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.