Gene Collier: Football gods shine brightly upon Steelers
January 4, 2016 12:00 AM
Steeler's Arthur Moats celebrating with fans after beating the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CLEVELAND — Part from raw truth and part from professional protocol, everyone insists they play these sports one game at a time, regardless of circumstance, import, opposition and all remaining conceivable factors.
But they don’t always play them one at a time.
Sunday in Ohio, the Steelers played ’em two at a time. They played the hysterical Cleveland Browns, to their great good fortune, and they played the mind-bending slot machine that was Buffalo Bills-New York Jets, spinning crazily and ominously and simultaneously just 185 miles to the northeast — up the same bleak, wintry Erie lakefront.
So somehow, when their own clumsily obligatory Browns-pounding stopped, when the slot symbols were finally, fatefully locked into place, well, how does that saying go?
Here we go.
The Steelers are in the National Football League playoffs today by a purely dichotomous miracle — half by the exquisite timing of playing the always laughable and exceedingly hamstrung Browns on the final day of the regular season, half by getting the perfectly forgettable Bills to outlast the ever-fatalistic Jets.
“We kind of hurt ourselves, doing stupid stuff,” All-Pro guard David DeCastro said about a Steelers offense that wobbled to a 14-9 halftime lead. “I was not thinking about the Jets at all. I just didn’t want to get emotionally invested in it. I was just, ‘What happens happens.’ ”
It just happened that, for a long, troublesome stretch of a game they had to win, the Steelers were doing a tremendous impression of a disinterested party. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was throwing the sixth and seventh interceptions of his past four games (the Browns dropped a potential eighth) and the defense was getting chewed on by ninth-string quarterback Austin Davis.
Meanwhile, in Orchard Park, N.Y., the Bills were starting about the business of throwing away a 16-7 halftime lead, a process that figured to end with the Steelers missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
“We were cognizant of it,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, enunciating the undeniable. “They have scoring information. Then as it got really tight down the stretch, I thought Steeler Nation in the stands did a great job of giving the indication of how it was going.”
It was going badly on both fronts until precisely 3:37 p.m., when the Pittsburgh and Buffalo defenses generated turnovers at virtually the same moment. With the Jets trailing by 19-17 and in position for a go-ahead field goal, Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin picked off a pass intended for the Jets’ Eric Decker in the end zone. In the parallel universe, where the Steelers were desperately protecting a 17-12 lead with less than 11 minutes remaining, linebacker Lawrence Timmons was sacking Davis, who promptly fumbled it to a spot where it was covered by Pittsburgh’s Arthur Moats.
Suddenly, the Steelers and the Bills had a grip on where this was all heading. Not 20 minutes later, in a nearly preposterous synchronicity, Pittsburgh and Buffalo kicked field goals in the funhouse mirror. Buffalo went ahead, 22-17. Pittsburgh went ahead, 28-12.
Those numbers stood.
“Everybody just started going crazy; that’s how I found out,” Moats said about the Buffalo result. “The sideline was crazy, so I thought, ‘I guess we’re in the playoffs.’ We definitely put ourselves in a bad position last week [losing a desultory effort at Baltimore], but we’re a resilient group.”
The Steelers were 2 for 8 on third down for the second consecutive week, turned the ball over multiple times again and surrendered a potentially lethal 42-yard pass from Davis to Terrelle Pryor, the former Jeannette High School star whose career as a professional receiver can be measured in weeks.
The Steelers can shrug all of that away today primarily because Ryan Fitzpatrick, the journeyman passer who had led the Jets to five consecutive victories along the inside track to the playoffs, threw three interceptions in the final 11 minutes, all while the Browns were committing four turnovers on five possessions.
“First it was a crappy feeling because you’re just waiting for someone to do your job,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said about Buffalo’s role in this. “The story is still being written for us. We can’t just take this for granted.”
Perfectly said, but it was not the prevailing vibe inside a Steelers locker room awash in joy and relief.
“It was the best feeling,” offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “We knew all we needed was a chance to get into this tournament. Records won’t matter then. What matters is the team with more will. Whoever is playing the best ball will move on to the next round.
“I stand by what I said. I knew we’re a team that was capable of getting in. All we need is a chance. When you get that chance, I feel like with the team we have … we’re a team on the rise. I just know it.”
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @genecollier.
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