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Steelers' Christmas present to the Nation: a playoff berth?

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

So.

How did we get here?

Wasn't it a week or so ago that we were debating whether this team was any damn good at all. Now all the talk is about things like playoff seedings, MVP and Pro Bowl berths, team records and league records. All season we've been using the metaphors of yo-yos and roller coasters, so try this one on for size. If I understand correctly, the Steelers could end the regular season either as high as the third seed in the AFC or out of the playoffs altogether. Cruel? No. Cruel would be if Cincinnati goes 0-2. They could not only lose their lead in the AFC North, but possibly be out of the playoffs completely. Cruel would be if you have any connection to the Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh? We would just be tragically inconsistent. And of course, everyone would have to be fired. (More on that soon)

Mis-remembering history

This is an occupational hazard of being human. There is this tendency to reconstruct the past we experienced and in some cases fabricate a past that we really have little or no direct knowledge of at all. One of the more common examples will be that of people who claim to have been a witness to an event that they, in fact, were not a part of. Part of the reason for how some have been reacting to the state of the Steelers during the past couple of years has been due to some creative mis-remembering of the relative recent and distant past of the team. As we come tantalizingly close to achieving a playoff berth, there's a good chance that some will mis-remember the history of Pittsburgh's playoff teams.

It's a pretty sure bet that some are, against any sense of prudence, thinking about the possibility that this team could get really hot and make it all the way to Arizona in February. Some have already revealed their hopes and have immediately received reprimands and been told in no uncertain terms that this team is simply too flawed to be able to win out and earn that seventh Lombardi. You have to say this. It's the only sensible position to take. But looking at the actual history, sensible doesn't always win out. We were so annoyed with the loss to New Orleans that I suspect most have all but forgotten the fact that we've been celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1974 Steelers team that won Super Bowl IX.

Of course, that team didn't have the underachieving or dysfunction that the 2014 edition has displayed. No, their dysfunction was probably worse. Let's start with that year's draft. Today the world fawns all over the 1974 draft class, 'the greatest of all time'. In 1974, not so much. Only one player (Jack Lambert) found his way into the starting lineup, not that people were too keen on him. The two wide receivers (Swann and Stallworth) and the runt center from Wisconsin (Mike Webster) never cracked the starting lineup. One high draft pick couldn't even make the team. Free agents like Donnie Shell and Randy Grossman were well below the radar on special teams. You know what they would have said today about this? "Fire Art Rooney Jr., Bill Nunn and Chuck Noll!"

Think the Johnny Football situation in Cleveland is counterproductive? The 1974 Steelers had a full-blown, three-way quarterback controversy, complete with elements of hometown loyalty and racial and redneck bigotry in full display. Three quarterbacks started at least one game each, none due to injury to another player. In some respects, the worst that Ben has ever been treated was the best that Terry Bradshaw ever had up to that point. Kordell Stewart's mistreatment has nothing on that visited upon Joe Gilliam. Terry Hanratty had nothing on those two guys but he was a local guy (Butler, Pa.) and he had played for Notre Dame. That had to count for something, right?

Things were going so well with this team that Joe Greene, the cornerstone of the greatest professional sports franchise, the greatest Steeler ever...quit. It didn't last for long to be sure, but someone did need to actually talk him down off of the ledge, so to speak.

Then there's the whole matter of the AFC Championship game and John Madden's apparently disrespectful comments (the best two teams in football) following their playoff win over the Miami Dolphins. What would possess Madden to say a thing like that? A quick review.

After the Immaculate Reception game, the Steelers hosted the AFC Title game and lost to the Dolphins, the key play being a fake punt (Fire Noll!). The following season, the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs in Oakland (Fire Noll!). Then, just to show that game wasn't a fluke, the Raiders shut the Steelers out in Three Rivers Stadium in September of 1974. When I tend to preach about not putting much stock in September football, that game is always in my consciousness. So after just beating the two-time Super Bowl Champions and having punked the Steelers twice in a year, why wouldn't he take that posture? What had Pittsburgh ever accomplished up to that point?

With this is mind, would this team making it to Arizona be that crazy? Yeah. But crazy happens more often than we might think. Put another way, at this point of the season, who would you have bet to win the Super Bowl - the 2004 Steelers or the 2005 Steelers? So the way I see it, it's 50/50 that the Steelers either don't make the playoffs at all or win their seventh Lombardi. It would certainly be improbable if they did, but not exactly like the sun rising in the west.

Waterloo for the naysayers?

The Negs are in eclipse at the moment, either forced mute or at least to talk in whispers in the wake of an impressive victory in Cincinnati. And they're running out of time.

A pratfall in Atlanta would certainly help but, frankly, if the half-empty glass is your position, then the news is getting grim.

Here's the situation. A losing record or 8-8 is gone, out the window. In a weekly chat with one of the writers at the Post-Gazette, the best that one person could muster was that Dri Archer was a wasted draft pick. The response was along the lines of 'that's all you got?' In the environs where I hang out it's now a running joke. During a game or just in the course of Steelers-related conversation, someone will say "Fire ____", and everyone laughs. Mocking the mantra has become part of the language of Steelers Nation. And as they say, they're not laughing with you. There's still hope. If Pittsburgh goes 0-2 these last couple of weeks, you're back in business. But if they beat the Chiefs, the sell gets much tougher. You have to be clever when labeling a playoff team a failure. But it can be done. The fallback position would be to hope that the Bengals can deny the Steelers the AFC North title, and then claim anything short of a division title is below the line. Invoke 'The Standard is the Standard.' But what if they go 2-0? At that point you're in the same position that Tom Hanks found himself in the movie Saving Private Ryan. It's Alamo time. Disgust at a low seeding or falling short of scoring the Lombardi are the only cards left to play. Keep saying 'the Standard is the Standard.' But even if that works (Barnum said there was a sucker born every day), I think all hope of seeing anyone fired over the next few years is pretty much gone if it gets to that point. This would be strictly about saving face. The time for being coy is gone. Get on your knees, light the candles and the incense, and pray that Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles lay the wood to the LeBeau defense. If they don't, you'll hear people yelling 'Fire LeBeau'! They won't mean it.

The Moving train

One of the more effective strategies I stumbled upon as a coach was that of internal competition. Put in its most simplistic manner, the internal demands of earning and defending a position were equal to and sometimes greater than the challenges of defeating an opponent. Mike Tomlin appears to be applying this principle in an intelligently nuanced way and, if indeed the Steelers have turned a corner just in time to make a playoff run, it may be because the message has gotten across that the expected level of performance is high and the moving train unforgiving. Often in implementing this concept, a coach may undercut him/herself with a simplistic egalitarianism. Based on how this system is applied, experience can trump talent, for example, but not in all cases. Lance Moore wasn't just given playing time based upon his past accomplishments, just as Ryan Shazier isn't going to be handed a job back based upon his draft position. This isn't new I don't think. In the case of Shazier, Sean Spence and Vince Williams, it's just three dogs and one bone, as opposed to two dogs. What's different is that the competitive challenge he placed upon Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders is a more widespread phenomenon, given the greater numbers of young players on this squad, or those inexperienced in the Steelers' system. One way I think this strategy is effective is that certain perks are being refused by the players. The assumption, certainly partially true, is that the games are becoming more important. What may also be true is that the breath they feel on the backs of their necks is that of teammates who will gladly take their jobs if they let up.

I also spoke before about nuance. A question has been raised about why Shamarko Thomas has seemingly been passed over and what that might mean. I won't speak for earlier times, but it seems clear to me that, at this particular time, when you're entering playoff territory, taking Will Allen, who has two Super Bowl rings, over a talented-but-inexperienced, second-year player is a no-brainer. Thomas may have a greater upside, but we know what we'll get from Allen in this circumstance.

Atlanta

The Steelers have completed their road schedule tied for the most successful of the Tomlin era. If we see them playing in an enemy stadium again, that would be very good news. As in pretty much every game they've played this season, there have been concerns and doubts but, as a general assessment, they did what was necessary to win against a team, who like them over these past couple of years, is probably not quite as bad as its record might indicate. Besides this marking the end of their road schedule, it's also the last of the possible trap games. Playoff teams or contenders from here on out. Here are Tomlin's comments.

Award winners

Something of a mixed bag this week. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won the FedEx Air Player of the week award. Guard David DeCastro and defensive end Cameron Heyward got top PFF scores. William Gay was named Steelers Digest Player of the Week. And while their contributions were somewhat less than their normal level of spectacular, both Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are on track for selection to the Pro Bowl and setting team rushing and receiving records this week.

Gay

The hope is that William Gay has one of his better efforts

The veteran cornerback did just that and provided the margin of victory with his third pick-6 of the season. Gay is gaining recognition and respect on a number of levels both on and off of the field. He's in the running for the Walter Payton Award, and many fans who were suspicious or even hostile to him and his abilities are warming up and (finally) giving him his due.

Jason Worilds

The relationship between Steelers Nation and the NFL took another blow, courtesy of a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty given to the Pittsburgh outside linebacker. The last information I saw was that the league offices referred to it as a 'ticky-tac' foul. But the potential consequences certainly would not have been. The foul was called, nonetheless, and it resulted in a Falcons' score.

The film room

The focus this week is on the defense. This unit has become more and more stable as the season progresses and players get more comfortable in the LeBeau system, as predicted. They're still quite a way from being the sort of dominating product that Steelers fans have been accustomed to having year in and year out. But the relevant question now is can they be good enough in the next couple of weeks to successfully compete?

Injury report

The good news is that James Harrison (here) and Marcus Gilbert are both likely to return this week. It's also a relief that, after missing some practice time earlier in the week, Markus Wheaton is going to be available as well. On the minus side, it appears that Troy Polamalu is going to miss this one, as will Ike Taylor. Also, Matt Spaeth is listed as questionable.

Cam Heyward

Heyward has been playing at a consistently high level for two years now. This piece gives a peek into the relationship that exists with his mentor Brett Keisel and what Da Beard thinks of his linemate.

Kansas City

Here is a matchup that has the potential to play into all kinds of issues related to last season's regular season finale. Perhaps it's best that Ryan Succop is now elsewhere, though I can't help but feel curiosity concerning fan reaction if the former Chiefs kicker had stepped foot onto the Heinz Field turf. Would it not have been justice if he had been present and missed a field goal? Mike Tomlin provides a preview, as does Todd Haley, for the offense and Dick LeBeau for the defense here. And who the experts are picking.

Lawrence Timmons

Although he's once again working more than one job, when many people can't handle the responsibilities of even one, LT is a forgotten man in the eyes of many, even though he's believed to be a Pro Bowl-caliber performer. Whether enough people agree remains to be seen.

Lance Moore

In the recent past, nobody thought it to be particularly peculiar to have a team on which dozens of players had Super Bowl experience. A perceived vulnerability of the 2014 Steelers is that the majority of the team has no playoff experience whatsoever. That means the knowledge and wisdom from those veterans who do have such experience is more precious then ever. Moore shared some of that wisdom to the wide receiver group.

Playoff prep

While technically it's not sudden-death elimination, it's not hyperbolic exaggeration to say that every game from here on out is a playoff game. As Craig Wolfley says, that means the element of desperation is introduced into the mix, ramping up the intensity and urgency of everything. For players, many of whom are still coming to terms with the pace of play at this level, playoff football generally requires recognizing and mastering an even higher gear. A lot of conversation this week from the relative newbies and the vets revolved around how this process is playing out in preparation for this weekend's game.

Martavis Bryant

This Sports Illustrated video is the best profile I've seen of the fourth-rounder from Clemson.

Heath Miller

It was mentioned last week that Miller may be impressing as much or more as a blocker, along with DeCastro, for Bell's runs as for his pass receptions. That theme continues to play out this week.

The return of the no huddle?

There's some speculation in that regard, given the strength of the Chiefs' pass rush. The presumption being that the game may ride on the ability of the Kansas City defense to slow or derail the Steelers O. In any case, the offense is maturing in a manner that anything may be unveiled this week.

AFC North

Remember what people were saying a year ago about the NFC West? That's over. The story of the AFC North is remarkable. I would remind the reader that it was noted in the spring that the draft patterns of the team in this division (emphasis on defensive personnel) was a departure from the pattern followed by the rest of the league. Whether those actual selections made much of a difference on the field or were just reflective of mindset, the results are clear.

On that number three seed

If Pittsburgh wins out, it could happen. They would need help though, from the Dallas Cowboys.

Poaching (cont.)

Other teams keep raiding Pittsburgh's practice squad. The Steelers continue to replace.

Tomlin

It's kind of hard to not pass some credit to the head coach's way given the circumstances. Not a perfect coach (and who is?), but despite the best efforts of some to try to divorce every good thing this organization does from him (and saddle him with the blame for all of the bad), he continues to demonstrate why he deserves to be in the conversation as being one of the very good ones.

Subsidizing the LRT

This is actually one of those things that might fly over the head of some Pittsburgh-based fans relative to those of us who are familar with other NFL cities. The Steelers have decided to continue to subsidize ridership on public transportation to the games. If you want to do a short-form version of what separates the Rooneys from the Daniel Snyders of the world, this would be it.

EXTREMELY IMPORTANT UPDATE!

MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM WEEKEND CHECKDOWN!!!