Allow me to take you back to halftime of Pittsburgh’s Week 15 match-up versus the Broncos at Heinz Field on December 20, 2015:
Following a pretty lackluster first half in-which head coach Mike Tomlin had to instruct safety Mike Mitchell not to blink several different times or he would have his eyelids removed, Pittsburgh trailed 27-13 at the break.
However, the Steelers stormed back with 21-unanswered second half points to walk away with a pulsating 34-27 victory to improve to 9-5 and put their postseason fate firmly in their own hands. One week later, they would be at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium to face a lowly Ravens squad. Win that game and the final one against the horrific Browns, and a division title would be a reality. In-fact, things were looking so sweet as Santa prepared his sleigh, even a bye into the second round of the playoffs was a possibility.
Unfortunately, you know the story. The Steelers performed poorly for the better part of 60 minutes and lost an ugly affair to that lowly and, oh yes, compromised Ravens team (an injured Joe Flacco was standing on the sidelines, as he watched a just signed Ryan Mallett continuously frustrate Pittsburgh’s defense).
With that loss, coupled with a Jets’ victory over New England, suddenly, the division title was off the table. And those playoffs chances, well, they were on life support, with the prognosis of a full-recovery not looking good.
Fast-forward to Sunday, and there were the Steelers, on December 18, 2016, jogging into the locker room of Paul Brown Stadium, trailing Cincinnati by two touchdowns.
Thankfully, the Steelers again scored all of the second half points in their Week 15 contest and escaped PBS with a much-needed victory to improve to 9-5 and make their playoff fate crystal clear: Beat Baltimore at Heinz Field in Week 16, and an AFC North title would be a reality.
In-fact, with the Raiders’ narrow defeat of San Diego on Sunday being their 11th of the season, a division title for Pittsburgh would almost surely bring with it a third seed and nothing much to play for in Week 17; Tomlin could in essence create his own bye week, by resting every important starter against Cleveland (0-16, be damned).
Of course, if the Steelers fall to Baltimore on Christmas Day, those playoff hopes would surely be placed on life support once again. With the Dolphins also sitting at 9-5 and owning a head-to-head tiebreaker, Pittsburgh would have to rely on a team with nothing to play for but pride (and possibly looking ahead to the sandy beaches of wherever), knocking off a division rival with everything to play for.
The odds of this year’s version of the Bills--those Catbirds—doing the Steelers a second-straight Week 17 solid by knocking off Baltimore at home seem fairly low.
Fortunately, that scenario hasn’t come to fruition just yet. Pittsburgh can simply take care of business this coming Sunday and then enjoy a fairly peaceful New Year’ Day (heck, the players could all have a little too much fun the night before, and nobody would really care).
Of course, for the tastier second scenario from the previous paragraph to become a reality, the Steelers will have had to learn from their 2015 Week 16 mistakes.
The Ravens have been the seemingly inferior team to Pittsburgh for quite some time (especially as the 2015 season was coming to a close), yet, they’ve walked away with four-straight victories in the normally evenly-matched series.
Have the Steelers learned from the past or will they once again have to take on a hapless Cleveland team in the final week with also one eye trained on the Balt/Cin portion of the Heinz Field scoreboard?
We’ve learned so much about these “new” Steelers during their impressive five-game winning-streak.
We shall see just how far they’ve come, as they take on the Ravens next week with the home folks behind them and everything else in front of them.