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Steelers 34, Broncos 27: Comeback victory shows how far Steelers have come from last season

The Pittsburgh Steelers are two wins away from their second straight perfect December.

So does this mean it’s 2014 all over again?

Not exactly.

That would be short-changing the 2015 Steelers, who overcame a 17-point deficit to defeat the Denver Broncos 34-27 Sunday at Heinz Field.

This year’s Steelers have shown a mental toughness that was missing last season, even before staging the franchise’s biggest comeback since rallying from 24-7 to beat the Browns 36-33 in a 2002 AFC wild-card game.

After winning three in a row highlighted by Ben Roethlisberger’s stratospheric six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, the 2014 Steelers were punched in the mouth and lost to a 4-12 Jets team.

Then after closing the season with four straight wins, the Steelers buckled when Le’Veon Bell was injured in the regular-season finale and went one-and-done in the playoffs.

This year’s Steelers (9-5) have dealt better with adversity. Despite only having Bell for five and a half games and Roethlisberger for 10 games, they’re in the playoffs if they can finish the season with wins at Baltimore and Cleveland.

On Sunday, these Steelers were presented with yet another hurdle. The game took on a “here we go again” feel in the first half when Brock Osweiler was made to look like the 2004 Peyton Manning and not the knitted-cap-wearing mentor who looked like an old man on the Broncos’ sideline.

After a little reprieve against 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck and Bengals backup A.J. McCarron, the Steelers defense was again being exposed.

Demaryius Thomas and ex-Steeler Emmanuel Sanders couldn’t have had any more open space if they were roaming the Colorado wilderness. Thomas caught two touchdown passes and Sanders caught one as the Broncos jumped out to a 27-10 lead in the second quarter.

The Steelers’ first-half performance Sunday was reminiscent of their loss at home to the Saints last year, when they trailed 35-16 in the fourth quarter before falling 35-32. It also brought to mind their 34-24 home loss to the Chargers in 2012 coming off an emotional, last-second win led by Charlie Batch at Baltimore. That was the start of a three-game losing streak that sank the Steelers’ playoff hopes.

But these aren’t the 2012 Steelers or the 2014 Steelers.

These are the 2015 Steelers. They don’t suffer unexpected letdowns, at least not for four full quarters.

The secondary decided in the second half that it was OK to get close to Broncos receivers. Brandon Boykin, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden and linebacker Ryan Shazier all broke up passes and Arthur Moats got his hand in the way of a pass.

Before a William Gay pass breakup sealed the victory, Shazier made his first career interception to set up the deciding touchdown, Roethlisberger’s 23-yard pass to Antonio Brown with 3:24 left. It was Brown’s second touchdown and one of his 16 receptions for 189 yards.

After Shazier’s pick, Mike Tomlin pounded his chest and pointed to the TV camera.

You know it’s a special December when Tomlin gets pumped like that. Sunday’s gesture topped his chest-thumping salute to the Terrible Towel wavers in Atlanta after last year’s win over the Falcons. It even rivaled his Roger Daltrey-like headphone twirling after Deshea Townsend’s tiebreaking pick-six in a December win over the Cowboys during the Steelers’ 2008 championship season.

Tomlin and the Steelers could be celebrating their second straight playoff berth next week if they win at Baltimore and the Jets lose at home to the Patriots. No scoreboard watching will be required as long as the Steelers beat the Ravens (4-9) and Browns (3-10) to close out the season. Wins in those two games would guarantee a playoff berth.

Road victories within the division are never a given, but another characteristic of this year’s Steelers is that unlike last year they don’t lose to bad teams as long as they have a competent kicker.

Outside of their Week 4 overtime loss to the Ravens in which Josh Scobee missed two field goals in the last two and a half minutes of regulation, the teams that have beaten the Steelers have a combined record of 39-15.

If they can take care of business at Baltimore and Cleveland, the Steelers will do one better than last year and win their final five games of the season.

More importantly, they’ll be harder to beat in the playoffs than they were last year.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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