For Steelers, a fight to finish for playoff berth
The Steelers weren’t good enough.
They weren’t good enough — their words — two years in a row.
Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and seemingly everyone involved have insisted 8-8 won’t cut it. It won’t this year, either.
The Steelers enter their bye week at 7-4, but a return to the postseason for the first time since being Tim Tebowed in 2011 is far from a sure bet.
Six teams — the Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns — are tied for the two wild-card spots with four losses. The Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills are one game behind with five losses.
The Steelers are percentage points behind Cincinnati for first place in the AFC North, but by the end of Sunday, they could be alone in first place or tied for last.
It has been that kind of year.
So what will it take to qualify for the postseason?
Nine wins has been enough many times during the past decade. It took 10 wins in other seasons.
In 2008, the Dolphins won the AFC East with an 11-5 record, but the New England Patriots couldn’t claim a wild-card berth with that same record.
This season it appears 10 or 11 wins will be needed to get into the postseason, meaning there’s little margin for error for the Steelers.
The most direct way for them to get in is to win their final five games. If they have to go the wild-card route, they need to pump up their tiebreaker criteria with division and conference wins.
But before talking about strength of schedule, winning percentage of common opponents or best net points in common games, the Steelers have to address their demons.
Has anything haunted them more than inconsistency?
They dominated the Browns for a half in the opener, then were dominated the rest of the way. They walloped Carolina, then lost to woeful Tampa Bay and barely escaped one-win Jacksonville.
They were embarrassed by the Browns in the teams’ second meeting and followed that with a head-scratching first half against the Texans before putting together 10 of their best quarters of football under Tomlin.
Then there was the letdown against the New York Jets and the first 40 minutes against the Tennessee Titans.
Offense good. Offense bad. Offensive line good. Offensive line bad. Le’Veon Bell rushing for 204 yards. Bell rushing for 26.
The defense has been consistently bad for the most part, not even so much from week to week but from play to play.
“Since I have been here, that is how we play,” Taylor said. “For some odd reason, we always give each other heart attacks on the sidelines.
“We just have to stay consistent. There can’t be any ebb and flow. Teams are going to catch momentum, and we understand that, but we have to withstand it. So when we start fast, we have to finish fast.”
If the Steelers go 3-2 over the final month to get to 10-6, it’s likely they need to defeat the Bengals twice and the Chiefs to qualify for the playoffs.
They likely can get away with losses to the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons because the top tiebreakers are division and conference records.
With so many teams bunched in the AFC and particularly the AFC North — it’s the only division that doesn’t have a team with a losing record — tiebreakers all but are assured to come into play.
If more than two teams are tied for the wild card, the tie is broken in the division first.
That means the Steelers could be eliminated from the wild card even if they have favorable tiebreakers over teams outside of their division. That makes division records — and those two games against the Bengals — important.
On the field, it’s as basic as a three-point plan:
• Stay healthy: Are there any other teams on which the stars are more indispensable than the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Bell? Losing any one of them would have catastrophic consequences.
• Defense must improve: This isn’t the 2008 Steelers defense. It’s not even the 2013 unit. However, help is on the way. Taylor and rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier could return against the Saints next Sunday, and Troy Polamalu shouldn’t be far behind. Their returns will help stabilize an uneven unit.
• Rookie help: The Steelers’ class hasn’t contributed as much as expected. Shazier has missed six games, Stephon Tuitt and Dri Archer can’t get on the field, and it took Martavis Bryant and Daniel McCullers half a season to play. They need to contribute down the stretch. Bryant is the most dynamic, but Archer could be valuable with LeGarrette Blount out of the picture.
“When you win,” Taylor said, “you don’t have to look around and see what’s going on outside.”