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Steelers do the improbable, run the table to the AFC North title and playoff berth

As in their previous matchup with Baltimore, the Steelers staged a fierce, fourth-quarter rally, this time not only claiming a huge win, but also the AFC North title.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Six weeks ago, in the wake of a tough loss at Heinz Field to the Dallas Cowboys, it seemed wishful thinking to entertain the notion that a 4-5 team, performing as inconsistently as the Pittsburgh Steelers, could somehow punch its ticket to the playoffs by running the table in its remaining regular-season games. But as the outreached arm of the incomparable Antonio Brown shattered the goal-line plane with only nine seconds remaining on the game clock on Christmas evening, giving the Steelers a 31-27 victory and sending the Baltimore Ravens home for the playoffs, no member of Steelers Nation had even the slightest doubt that they had just witnessed a true holiday miracle.

For three quarters, this game seemed essentially to be a replay of the past two Steelers/Ravens match-ups. That’s why it was so amazing and heartening to watch Ben Roethlisberger snap out of his funk to lead three TD drives during the final 15 minutes, running the Ravens right out of Heinz Field before a delirious Pittsburgh crowd. The most delicious aspect of this huge win is that, for the first time, the 2016 Steelers unveiled that magical element which has typified Pittsburgh’s late-season heroics ever since Franco Harris snagged the Immaculate Reception some 44 years ago. In the wake of Brown’s incredible game-winning lunge over the goal line, and another unreal performance by Le’Veon Bell (122 yards on 20 carries), suddenly the deferred dream of another trip to the Super Bowl for the Black and Gold doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Prior to this gritty comeback in a must-win game, some serious doubts had been aired about this team’s overall level of toughness and resilience. But considering that their past two triumphs over divisional arch-rivals have been accomplished in spite of a patchwork defensive line and a depleted receiver corps, it’s become more difficult by the week to make the case that Pittsburgh isn’t clearly a team on the rise as an NFL power.

To be sure, we continue to see problems stemming from poor coordination between Big Ben and his ever-changing cast of receivers. We also saw some lapses on the part of the Steelers’ young and improving defense. But overall, whether you’re talking about offense or defense, the Steelers have proven during their current 6-game winning streak that they’ve got the talent and guts to compete with any team in the NFL. Perhaps best of all, this is a team that will only improve once the receiver situation is worked out and when the defense has gained more experience. Regardless of what awaits the Steelers in the playoffs or beyond, we’ve seen marked improvement in most aspects of the team during the second half of the 2016 regular season.

Despite his lights-out performance during the final quarter, Roethlisberger might be the only piece of the puzzle which still hasn’t quite fallen into place. Prior to the fourth quarter surge, Ben had been looking very much as though he might be the goat rather than one of the heroes of the 2016 regular season. Nevertheless, with the talented cast of characters surrounding him, and with more opportunities to work with the new faces in the Steelers’ receiver corps, there’s no reason not to keep the faith that Ben will continue to come through when the chips are down, as he’s always done in the past.

So thoroughly did the Steelers run this late-season table that the final game at Heinz Field versus Cleveland next Sunday has become, not just irrelevant, but also a welcome opportunity to rest the team’s wounded warriors for playoff battles. All in all, and in view of the dismal quarterback situations currently being endured by some other NFL playoff teams, it’s pretty difficult to imagine a scenario heading into the postseason any more favorable than the one Pittsburgh is looking forward to right now.