PITTSBURGH — Once teetering between funereal silence and bubbling angst after blowout losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills, the Pittsburgh Steelers were raucous in the visitors locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The anthem of the past few seasons — “Take Over Your Trap” by Bankroll Fresh — blared from the portable speakers as cameras poured into the locker room. The music was quickly turned off to accommodate interviews, but the buzz remained after the Steelers’ 19-16 win against the Atlanta Falcons.
After winning back-to-back games for the first time this season, the Steelers have clawed back from the brink of irrelevance and into the playoff conversation entering crucial December games. In other news, time is a flat circle.
“We had an opportunity to stack a victory, and that’s something that we hadn’t done,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “That’s a significant step. Hopefully, it’s a springboard for us as we move forward. We need it to be, the sand is running through the hourglass in terms of us stating the case for ourselves. We recognize that.”
“There are a lot of positives to draw from [the win]. We can’t wear our hands out patting ourselves on the back.”
The chances of the 5-7 Steelers earning a playoff berth in the juggernaut AFC are still incredibly slim — just 2.3% according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) — but they’re not zero. For perhaps the first time this season, the Steelers have tangible hope behind an offense that’s finally clicking, a rookie quarterback showing improvement with each additional game, a run game resurgence and a defense that’s returning closer to the form of the standard expected in the gritty organization.
“We’re in the business of winning,” running back Najee Harris said. “We’re in the business of making the playoffs. I would be lying if I said that that’s not something that we’re into or looking at. But the best thing we could do right now is just worry about who we got next and try to win that game. And then from there we try to see what happens at the end of the year.”
To Harris’ point, the Steelers’ next opponent will go a long way in dictating the team’s playoff hopes. The Steelers host the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens — likely playing without quarterback Lamar Jackson — on Sunday. To keep hope for an improbable playoff berth alive, the Steelers not only need to beat the Ravens this week, but also win the rematch in Baltimore on Jan. 1.
“We’ve been in circumstances like this with Baltimore a bunch,” Tomlin said. “It’s great for the fans, man. It’s great to be a part of. It’s humbling to be a part of. It takes two to tango. They’re a great dance partner.”
At 8-4 with a 2-0 mark in AFC North games, the Ravens sit atop the division, but the Bengals are surging with four consecutive wins — including a comeback victory against the Chiefs. And like the Steelers, the Browns are also 5-7 on the season.
“It’s not a realistic discussion unless we handle business this week,” Tomlin said of the playoffs.
“That’s what I mean when I say each week we’re singularly focused. It’s not like we don’t acknowledge the elephant in the room. There’s something that’s coming at the end of this thing, and we want to be positioned for it and so we know what this week means relative to it.”
After starting out with the second-most difficult schedule, the Steelers’ remaining strength of schedule is 12th. In addition to two games against the Ravens, the Steelers also have games at the Carolina Panthers (4-8) and against the Las Vegas Raiders (5-7), plus a Week 18 finale hosting the Cleveland Browns (5-7).
According to FPI, the likely Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore Ravens are projected to be 0.8 points better than the Steelers this week. The projection also has the Steelers as 2.7 points better than the Panthers, while opponents are favored in the final three games of the season.
FPI projects the Raiders and Browns to be better by 2.7 and 2.0 points, respectively, while the Ravens are expected to be 7.4 points better than the Steelers in their rematch — where Jackson is expected to be back from a PCL sprain.
To have a prayer of grabbing a wild-card spot, the Steelers would essentially have to win out and have teams like the Jets and the Patriots, who beat the Steelers early in the season, slip up down the stretch. Both teams are ahead of the Steelers in the playoff hunt with the Jets clinging to the No. 7 spot entering Week 14.
Currently, the Steelers are the No. 12 team in the AFC, five spots outside of the final wild-card spot. The Browns, Raiders and Chargers are also ahead of them.
“The playoffs aren’t that far from us,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “We gotta continue to stack these wins and just continue to grind and focus.”