When any NFL season turns the calendar from November to December, people start to utter phrases such as, "This is when the games really count."
Obviously, that's not true, since all the games count in the standings, whether they're played in September or December. However, how a football team is performing near the end of a season is often an indication of the job the head coach has done with regards to keeping all 53 of his players on the same page and focused.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin may have his faults and he certainly has his critics. But the next time you're screaming at the TV during one of his quizzical replay challenges or because of his clock management, if your Christmas tree is decorated and sitting nearby, chances are Pittsburgh is going to win that game.
Since Tomlin became the Steelers head coach in 2007, his teams have an all-time record of 27-12 in games played after December 1. Perhaps more impressive than his 16-7 mark during playoff years is his 9-5 record in years in-which Pittsburgh has failed to make the postseason.
Most players can stay motivated when a division title, home-field advantage and a Super Bowl are within arms reach; it's a little different when nothing but an attractive draft pick seems possible.
As the 2009 Steelers prepared for their Week 15 match-up at Heinz Field against the Packers, they did so on the heels of a five-game losing streak that had them sitting at 6-7 and almost hopelessly out of the playoff race. Coming off a Super Bowl XLIII victory a year earlier, it might have been easy and maybe even understandable if a roster full of veterans, many of whom were part of two recent championship teams, to sort of pack it in mentally and physically and started looking ahead to the offseason. Instead of that, the Steelers won their last three games--including exciting victories over playoff-bound Green Bay and Baltimore--to finish at 9-7 and a few tiebreakers short of the postseason.
Just two years ago, the Steelers rebounded from an awful 0-4 and 2-6 start to win three-straight and actually put themselves in decent playoff-shape, despite their rather mediocre 5-6 record. Unfortunately, following two close and very depressing losses to the Ravens and Dolphins, Pittsburgh stood at 5-8 as it prepared for a Sunday night home game against first place Cincinnati and in even worse shape in-terms of playoff positioning than the '09 squad. For a team that was clearly in transition, riddled with injuries and three seasons removed from its last playoff victory and Super Bowl appearance, it may have been easy for Tomlin's charges to wave the white flag and finish with double-digit losses. Instead of giving in, however, Pittsburgh closed out the year on a three-game winning-streak--including exciting victories over the playoff-bound Bengals and Packers--to not only avoid the franchise's first losing season in a decade, but narrowly miss the playoffs thanks to a Ryan Succop field goal shank.
Speaking of the 2013 squad, since losing to Miami on December 8 of that year, the Steelers have won nine-straight games in the 12th month.
A season ago, after falling at home to the Saints on November 30, Pittsburgh dropped to 7-5. Coming off back-to-back 8-8 and playoff-less campaigns, missing the postseason with a third-straight mediocre record seemed very possible. Instead of that, however, the Steelers rode a four-game winning-streak--including two crucial victories over a playoff-bound Cincinnati team that was in first place as the month of December began--to their first AFC North title in four seasons.
For a few years now, there's been a radio sound bite making the rounds of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he gets his teammates prepared before a game by saying, "This is December football. If you don't know what that means, find someone who does and ride with them."
You can say what you want about Mike Tomlin, but his teams certainly know what December football means.