PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers put themselves back in the playoff conversation by stringing together four convincing victories in which they never trailed. They put themselves on the cusp of the AFC North title by showing the kind of resilience they’ve lacked this year when things get tight.
Down two touchdowns on the road, the Steelers didn’t panic. They didn’t press either. They simply kept chipping away at the seemingly emotionally fragile Bengals until Cincinnati lost its composure and, eventually, whatever resolved remained in an otherwise lost season.
The result – a 24-20 victory that set up a de facto AFC North title game next Sunday against Baltimore – was Pittsburgh’s first win in a game decided by less than seven points this season and first when trailing at the half since Week 15 of last year.
”It just shows what we’re capable of,” safety Sean Davis said Monday. ”We’re a team that fights. We’ve been through so many things throughout that game and it does nothing but make us more confident and lets us know when we play like that the whole game we’re a tough team to beat.”
A team that evolved from one heavy on flash to something more substantive over the last month. Six Chris Boswell field goals, one well-timed Boswell trip of Cincinnati returner Alex Erickson that prevented a touchdown and an exclamation point game-ending drive gave the Steelers (9-5) their longest winning streak since 2009.
Leading by four with 5:53 remaining, Pittsburgh took over at its own 16 and the Bengals never got the ball back. Four first downs – the last coming on Cincinnati’s eighth penalty of the day – allowed Ben Roethlisberger to kneel down four times and give the Steelers their 15th win in 18 trips to Paul Brown Stadium.
”It’s huge,” guard David DeCastro said. ”Having those team wins, especially late in the season. That’s got to be the way to do it.”
Maybe that’s why occasionally nitpicky head coach Mike Tomlin opted not to be so nitpicky after his team improved to 11-1 in its last 12 December games. While allowing most of his team’s issues early on Sunday were of the self-inflicted variety, from the face mask by defensive end Stephon Tuitt that extended Cincinnati’s opening drive to the pass interference call in the end zone on rookie cornerback Artie Burns that set up a Bengals touchdown.
It’s not the first time this season the Steelers have struggled on the road. It is the first time they’ve managed to overcome it.
”We have played that team five times in the past twelve months, it’s not a lot of secrets,” Tomlin said. ”It’s just technical expertise and a lot of butt kicking. And smiling in the face of adversity.”
Something Pittsburgh is becoming more comfortable at as the long slog of the regular season morphs into a sprint. The most basic math is very simple: knock off the Ravens (who have won four straight in one of the AFC’s most heated rivalries) and the Steelers have a third straight playoff berth for the first time in Tomlin’s 10-year tenure.
It’s a position Pittsburgh envisioned all along, it not the winding path it took to get here. The four-game nap the Steelers took in the middle of the season appears to be a distant memory.
”We’re going to fight for the whole 60 minutes,” Davis said.
If the can do it for 60 more, they’ll be division champions.
NOTES: Tuitt underwent an MRI on his right knee on Monday. He injured the knee on the same play he was flagged for grabbing Andy Dalton’s facemask and did not return. … WR Darrius Heyward-Bey ran in cleats on Monday as he tries to recover from a foot injury that’s kept him out since Week 7.
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