PITTSBURGH (AP) – The math is tantalizing.
The schedule is favorable.
The middle of the AFC is a mess.
Suddenly, things are looking up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Consecutive wins over Buffalo and Detroit have Pittsburgh (4-6) in position to play meaningful football into December if not January.
“We feel like we have a good team, but when we mention those things, people say ‘Your record says you’re not,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “We’ve just got to continue to fight this thing out and see what happens. We have to keep it going.”
Cotchery allows his team’s margin for error is “nonexistent,” though the final six weeks hardly look intimidating.
Starting with Sunday’s game at Cleveland (4-6), the Steelers face just one team with a winning record the rest of the way. And even that Dec. 15 showdown with AFC North-leading Cincinnati is at Heinz Field.
The other five games include two against the Browns, a Thanksgiving night matchup at struggling Baltimore (4-6) and a visit by the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 8.
What was billed as the return of former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace could take a backseat to something considerably more substantial.
Miami and the New York Jets are tied for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot at 5-5. Pittsburgh already owns the tiebreaker over the Jets after picking up a victory on the road last month.
It’s not much hope to cling to, but it beats the alternative. The Steelers were reading the obituary on their season after a humbling 55-31 loss to New England dropped them to 2-6 at the midway point and 15th in the 16-team AFC.
Two promising weeks later, they’re 10th with plenty of time left.
The crossroads may have come in the fourth quarter against Detroit. The Lions had just botched a fake field goal attempt but pinned the Steelers at their own 3 early in the fourth quarter.
Facing third-and-9, Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 16-yard gain. The drive ended in a touchdown and Pittsburgh was on its way to its most significant victory of the season.
“I don’t know if it’s a turning point, but hopefully we can look back in 3-4 months and say it was,” tight end Heath Miller said.
This isn’t the first time this fall Pittsburgh appeared poised to break out of a rut. The Steelers beat the Jets and the Ravens after an 0-4 start and spark belief that better days were ahead.
Pittsburgh then went out and bumbled its way to a 21-18 loss to Oakland before Tom Brady picked the Steelers apart and sent the franchise into full-blown crisis mode.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau talked about going back to “page one” in the playbook after giving up 610 yards to the Patriots. He vowed to simplify things and his defense has responded with a pair of solid performances.
The Steelers overwhelmed Buffalo quarterback E.J. Manuel in a 23-10 romp and shut down the high-powered Lions after surviving a 27-point deluge in the second quarter.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford completed just 3 of 16 passes after halftime and wide receiver Calvin Johnson never got his hands on the ball in the second half as Pittsburgh rallied.
Perhaps just as encouraging as the results were the plays the Steelers were able to produce. Lawrence Timmons recovered a fumble and returned it 30 yards to set up a score.
Nose tackle Steve McLendon forced Lions holder Sam Martin to fumble during the fake field goal and safety Will Allen intercepted Stafford in the fourth quarter to put Roethlisberger in position for the game-clinching touchdown.
Those were the kind of plays Pittsburgh didn’t make for several weeks early in the season, something that weighed on them in the locker room.
“When you’re not getting them, you try to downplay it like it doesn’t matter,” safety Ryan Clark said. “But when you’re getting them you understand they help you win.”
A pattern that will have to continue if the Steelers want to avoid missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time this millennium.
“We’ve got to be mentally tough,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “We know it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
NOTES: Coach Mike Tomlin said LB LaMarr Woodley, DE Brett Keisel and G Ramon Foster will have a chance to play against the Browns. All three starters sat out the Lions game because of injury. … The Steelers signed former Pitt running back Ray Graham to the practice squad on Tuesday. Graham rushed for 3,271 yards in four seasons with the Panthers from 2009-2012.
___AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org