On the Steelers: Long-shot playoff berth a few big steps away



In 1977, the Steelers needed the Houston Oilers to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals on the final weekend of the regular season in order for the Steelers to make the playoffs. After the Oilers beat the Bengals to give the Steelers a berth in the AFC tournament, the Steelers sent attache cases to the Oilers as a show of gratitude.

Thirty-six years later, the Steelers again need help to make the playoffs entering the final weekend of the regular season, and this time they’ll need more Christmas gifts than Santa Claus can carry for everything to fall into place.

A week ago, the Steelers’ chances of making the playoffs stood at less than 1 percent. But after a wild Sunday that produced a Steelers victory at Green Bay and three other teams in contention in the AFC race losing, the odds of making the playoffs increased — to a whopping 6 percent.

It remains a long shot, but the Steelers can make the playoffs if they beat the Browns Sunday at Heinz Field and the following also occurs: the Ravens lose at Cincinnati, the Dolphins lose at home to the New York Jets and the Chargers lose at home to Kansas City.

“Still having a horse in this race is important to us,” coach Mike Tomlin said Monday, a day after his team stayed alive with a 38-31 victory against the Packers. “We’re excited about getting back in front of our fans and doing it in Heinz Field against a familiar opponent. There are a lot of scenarios out there, but our approach will be the same that it’s been for the last two months. We’ve made this bed and I like the way this group is laying in it.”

Those odds might seem long, but the Steelers faced the same odds on the final weekend of the season in 1989 and managed to make the playoffs. That year, the Steelers had to win their final game at Tampa Bay and three other teams had to lose.

They’ll look to repeat history this week under circumstances that appear not as favorable.

Not only do the Steelers have to beat the Browns, but they also are counting on two teams to win that have little at stake.

Kansas City enters its final game at San Diego locked into the No. 5 seed in the AFC and the Chargers have a potential playoff berth on the line. In Miami, the Jets were eliminated from playoff contention last week, but the Steelers need them to win for the second consecutive week, this time against a team playing for a playoff berth in its home stadium.

In addition, the Steelers need the Bengals to beat the Ravens a week after the Bengals clinched a playoff spot. The Bengals can improve their seeding with a victory, but only if New England loses to Buffalo. Luckily for the Steelers, the Bengals and Ravens play at 1 p.m. and the Patriots play at 4:25 p.m.

Tomlin said he has no concerns about his team scoreboard watching Sunday.

“Largely, it’s about us and having a singular focus that’s going to be necessary to produce an A-like performance for us amidst the [playoff] possibilities,” he said. “We just want to live in these moments, prepare to the best of our abilities and put ourselves in the best position to play.”

He would do it again

If faced with the same situation as Sunday in Green Bay, Tomlin said he would do the same thing and go for a touchdown late in the game rather than kneeling, bleeding the clock and kicking a potential winning field goal with only a few seconds left.

The Steelers scored on second down when Le’Veon Bell ran in from 1 yard out with 1:25 left. The Packers returned the kickoff 70 yards to the Steelers 30 and had an opportunity to tie the score and send the game to overtime. They got to the 1, but a penalty forced them back to the 6 and a final pass into the end zone fell incomplete.

“I just had a concern with kneeling under the circumstances with the weather conditions being what they were,” Tomlin said. “[Green Bay kicker Mason] Crosby just had a kick blocked on that end of the field, and to be honest with you, it wasn’t anything that we did. I just think it was a low-hit ball. And you’re talking about a guy who kicked great all year.

“Also, when they utilized their last timeout, I was more comfortable putting the defense on the field under those circumstances after getting the touchdown. So if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably do it the same. Obviously, if I would have known they’d return the kickoff 70 yards I’d have a different approach.”

Injuries not serious

Receiver Emmanuel Sanders and linebacker Terence Garvin left the Green Bay game with knee injuries, but the possibility exists that they could be ready to play against the Browns.

Tomlin said both are questionable. Garvin has a knee sprain and Sanders has an injury to the lateral meniscus.

The Steelers could be limited in their passing game if Sanders cannot play, because rookie receiver Markus Wheaton, who would take Sanders’ place in the starting lineup, has a fractured finger. Tomlin said he will tape the injury and be ready to play, but it leaves open the question of how effective a receiver can be with a finger injury.

Tomlin also said linebacker Jason Worilds is dealing with an abdominal injury that will limit him early in the week.


Ray Fittipaldo: rfititpaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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