Have you bought your Pittsburgh Steelers “In the Hunt” T-shirt?
Weren’t Steelers players wearing “In the Hunt” caps with the tags still on in the locker room Sunday after their 37-27 win over the Detroit Lions?
Why not? The Steelers improved to 4-6 and earned that coveted “In the Hunt” status with Sunday’s comeback victory at Heinz Field.
Channel surf long enough this week and you’ll come across an AFC playoff picture graphic, and look whose logo is in that third column under the “In the Hunt” heading.
That’s right, it’s the hypocycloid of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The same Steelers who started this season 0-4.
The New York Jets (5-5) currently occupy the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. They hold the tiebreaker over the Miami Dolphins (5-5) because of a better AFC East record. But that could change because the Jets and Dolphins still have to play each other twice.
The Steelers are one of six teams a game back at 4-6. They’ve come a long way and they provided plenty of reasons Sunday to be encouraged about the last six weeks of the season.
But the Steelers haven’t accomplished enough yet for their playoff chances to be taken seriously.
After two straight victories, the Steelers have approached the Two-Games-Under-.500 Wall. They’ve failed to climb that wall so far this season, and they couldn’t do it until it was too late the last time they fell two games under .500.
Before this season, the last time the Steelers were 2-6 was 2006, Bill Cowher’s last year as head coach. They were mired in a championship hangover after winning Super Bowl XL the year before.
Then they beat the New Orleans Saints 38-31 at Heinz Field.
Reggie Bush, then a rookie, caught seven passes for 40 yards in that game and ran for 49 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown.
Seven years later, with the Steelers again trying to recover from a 2-6 start, Bush was on another NFC team that the Steelers defeated in a high-scoring game at home. He wasn’t as much of a factor, catching two passes for 23 yards and running for 31 yards on 12 carries with a fumble.
Just like in 2006, the Steelers follow an emotional, interconference win at home with trips to Cleveland and Baltimore.
They beat the Browns 24-20 to get to 4-6 in 2006. Then they went to Baltimore and lost 27-0. It was the last time they’ve been shut out.
The Steelers won three in a row after that and remained in the playoff picture until they met the Ravens again. Their 31-7 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 16 eliminated them from playoff contention and they finished the season 8-8.
Mike Tomlin was hired as head coach a few weeks later, and since then the Steelers never fell two games below .500.
Until this season.
We don’t even have to dust off the pages of history to cite the hurdle the Steelers must clear to get to within a win of .500. We need only go back to last month.
The Steelers got to 2-4 with a 19-16 victory over the Ravens on a last-second field goal. All that euphoria was zapped in an instant the following week at Oakland.
CBS announcers Spero Dedes and Rich Gannon barely had introduced themselves when the Steelers let Terrelle Pryor run 93 yards for a touchdown. The Steelers lost that game, and no one needs to be reminded what happened at New England the week after. At 2-6 the Steelers found themselves in the same hole they were in at 0-4.
Cleveland harbors just as many skeletons for the Steelers as Oakland. Were it not for losses there in 2009 and 2012, the Steelers would have made the playoffs in six straight seasons.
Memories of the Steelers’ listless Thursday-night performance there in 2009 and Fumblegate last season should be enough for fans to keep their optimism in check as the Steelers go to Cleveland Sunday.
If the Steelers beat the Browns, it sets up another showdown at Baltimore with playoff implications on the prime-time Thanksgiving stage. That would be enough to beat any tryptophan-induced drowsiness.
Winning division games on the road is difficult for any team. It’s even more difficult for a team with a losing record to do it twice in five days.
But if the Steelers can do it and enter December 6-6, then there will be reason for genuine excitement about their playoff chances.