Bottom of the ninth with two outs and a runner on. Three seconds on the clock and the ball in your hands. A penalty shot to win the title.
All three situations are the stuff of dreams, what children envision in the backyard as they imagine championship conditions, raucous arenas and the brightest of lights.
On Sunday night, the Steelers very well may experience a parallel situation firsthand: win or go home.
Situated at 7-8, Pittsburgh has only a 3% chance to make a trip to the postseason for the second straight season. While external factors — such as the Dolphins being underdogs in their matchup at New England and the reeling Jets traveling to Seattle — dictate Pittsburgh’s odds of suiting up in January, the Steelers still largely control their own destiny.
Yes, a Dolphins win would eliminate Mike Tomlin’s team before it even tightens the pads at 8:20 p.m. ET from M&T Bank Stadium. However, Pittsburgh must approach the divisional contest as if a win keeps its hopes alive, whereas a loss means packing the bags on 2022.
That concept encapsulates the very essence of playoff football. While the Steelers face a preposterous climb to the postseason summit, they’ll get an appetizer in that late January entrée right this week.
While many NFL fans groaned when seeing the announcement that Steelers-Ravens had been flexed to Sunday Night Football, the schedule shift serves as further fuel for the team wearing black and gold. Tomlin’s squad possesses the opportunity to showcase its long-term talent and fortitude on the national stage. That’s about all you can ask for as a coach.
Beyond the simple timing of the game, this type of back-against-the-wall contest will only help forge a young Steelers team into a fortified, battle-tested contingent.
Yes, Pittsburgh made the postseason in 2021 with rookies Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Dan Moore Jr. However, a game of this ilk enables current newcomers Kenny Pickett and George Pickens to establish a sense of a postseason atmosphere. Factoring in zero postseason wins since 2017 only adds extra incentive to exorcise crunch-time demons. Ultimately, given the youth across Tomlin’s team, it can never hurt to present higher stakes later in the season, especially with an eye toward 2023 and beyond.
Inherently, that connects to my next point. Having started 2-6, Pittsburgh has not faced many “must-win” games across 2022. Home contests with the Saints and Ravens did possess grander ramifications, but they would not have technically eliminated Tomlin’s group. While that very reality loomed over this Saturday’s clash with the Raiders, the point stands: the Steelers have scarcely needed to absolutely emerge victorious with its current roster.
It’s also key to factor in how the meeting between these two bitter rivals fared only three weeks ago. With its postseason aspirations in front of it, Tomlin & Co. wilted, dropping a very winnable game to the Tyler Huntley- and Anthony Brown-led Ravens. Between inexcusable turnovers and a sheer inability to stop the run, Pittsburgh experienced agonizing defeat — and the stark reality of likely not playing into late January.
Consequently, Sunday affords Tomlin, Matt Canada, Teryl Austin and the rest of the Steelers’ coaching staff revenge on a golden platter. How will Canada’s offense mitigate self-inflicted mistakes, especially in opponent territory and on third down? How will Austin get his defense to gel on the ground? What will Tomlin do to avoid his first season sweep at the hands of John Harbaugh since 2019?
With only two games remaining in 2022, questions are forming a black and gold funnel cloud barreling toward the Steel City. Between roster decisions and the coaching staff, monumental decisions will be made that will alter the direction and trajectory of the franchise in only several weeks.
However, one element will carry over into the new year and next September: a young, promising Steelers nucleus. Though it may only be Week 17, entering a deafening, standalone road game with everything on the line is precisely the high intensity that lies ahead for Pittsburgh in the years to come.