Reeling Steelers face make-or-break game against Patriots |
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Joe Rutter
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt, right, is congratulated by Cameron Heyward after sacking Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr during the first half of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The Pittsburgh Steelers would like to make a correction to the NFL schedule. It’s the part that lists the postseason as beginning on the first weekend of January.

While that technically remains true, the Steelers would beg to disagree as it pertains to their situation.

“Our playoffs start now,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “We can’t lose anymore games. I think everyone knows this.”

Pouncey isn’t the only player in the locker room who feels that way.

“This is playoff football for us right now,” tight end Jesse James said. “We have to win this game, no matter what.”

And so it is the Steelers’ game Sunday against the New England Patriots isn’t No. 14 out of 16 on the regular-season schedule. It’s being viewed as much of a must-win game as any that unfolds in January when the postseason officially kicks in.

Riding a three-game losing streak, the Steelers (7-5-1) have gone from the No. 2 seed in the AFC and on track for a first-round playoff bye to a team that has a mere one-half game lead on the Baltimore Ravens (7-6) for the division title. And a loss to the Patriots (9-4) on Sunday not only would potentially drop the Steelers behind the Ravens, it could jeopardize their chances of securing the second wild-card berth.

And the prospect of missing the postseason for the first time in five years is something veteran Steelers players can’t stomach.

“The worst feeling any player in this league has is that first playoff weekend comes and you’re sitting at home,” guard Ramon Foster said. “You’re like, ‘Damn, we could be playing, we should be playing, but we are not.’

“You feel better (health-wise), you feel like you can play a whole another 16, but you can’t. I don’t want to be home.”

Foster speaks from the experience of a player who turns 33 in January, has spent 10 seasons with the Steelers and is finishing the last season of his contract. He’s also one of the few holdovers in the locker room from the Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Foster this season had a new house constructed in his native Tennessee where he can continue to spend his offseasons and eventual post-NFL years.

“But I’m not ready to be there yet,” he said. “I’m going to walk in the house from driving down, I have my suitcases and I’m going to sit down on the couch and be like, ‘Damn.’ I’m not ready for that,” he said. “I’m taking all of the measures I can, and so is everybody around me.”

After the Patriots, of course, the Steelers will face that little matter of beating the New Orleans Saints (11-2), the top seed in the NFC, on the road. The schedule concludes with a game against the 5-8 Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, the importance of which will be determined by what transpires in the next two weeks.

“It’s a three-week season,” guard David DeCastro said. “That’s all we’ve got.”

Until this year, when the Steelers opened December with last-second losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders, the Steelers had played some of their best football in the final month of the season under coach Mike Tomlin. In the previous five years, the Steelers were a combined 20-3 in December and January regular-season games, and they were 38-14 in such games in Tomlin’s first 11 seasons as a coach.

For the veteran players, this isn’t the first time the Steelers faced a make-or-break juncture of their season in December. In 2013, they avoided the first losing season under Tomlin by winning their final three games to finish 8-8 and nearly sneaked into the playoffs. They won the final seven games in 2016 after starting the season 4-5. Last year, a December loss to the Patriots was the only defeat for the Steelers in the final 11 games.

Time will tell if the Steelers reverse their fortunes or continue to slide all the way out of the playoff picture such as in 2012 when the Steelers lost five of six after starting 6-3 or in 2009 when Tomlin promised to “unleash hell” in December only to watch the Steelers extend their losing streak to five games before winning their final three but still miss the playoffs.

“That’s yet to be seen,” James said. “We have to prove ourselves this week. If we play games like we did last week, we’re not going to be playing football in January to have a chance to make any kind of run.”

Momentum isn’t on the Steelers’ side. Thanks to the loss to the 2-10 Raiders, the Steelers are home underdogs against the Patriots, the AFC East leader who remain in the running for a first-round playoff bye.

“I know the situation is bad,” Foster said. “I view it in a good way. If we’re the type of team we want to be, then we’ll say, ‘Hey, our backs are against thew wall. Let’s fight.’

“We’ve got a lot of fighters in this room.”

The problem for the Steelers is, there are only three rounds left in this 16-round fight, and a split-decision probably won’t cut it.

“It’s time to get to work,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “It doesn’t need to be said to the media. We have to knuckle up and get back to work. We have to be honest with ourselves. These past three weeks, we were not stepping up in critical situations. We have to be held accountable for that, and I look forward to solving that.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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