PITTSBURGH (AP) — The math remains tricky. The circumstances remain less than ideal.
And yet, the Pittsburgh Steelers are still alive for the playoffs entering the final week of the season. The same team that started 0-4. The same team that appeared in need of a franchise-wide overhaul after a 55-31 pounding in New England that dropped the Steelers to 2-6 in late-October. The same team that let Miami score 34 points in the snow two weeks ago.
Yep, that’s the team that can say the word postseason with a straight face after a frantic 38-31 win at Green Bay on Sunday.
“Isn’t that crazy?” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “We still are breathing and we’re going to continue to fight. We’ve got one more that we’ve got to win to even have a shot and that will be our focus.”
Well, that and the scoreboard. The Steelers (7-8) need to beat the fading Browns (4-11) next weekend and hope Miami, Baltimore and San Diego — all 8-7 — lose. It would create a five-way tie for the final wild card spot that would somehow end with Pittsburgh traveling to Cincinnati to face the AFC North Bengals for the third time this season.
As improbable as it seems, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin likes his chances. Last he checked, a slim shot was better than no shot at all.
“We’ve made this bed,” Tomlin said Monday. “I like the way the group is laying in it.”
The Steelers have won two straight and are 7-4 since Oct. 1, the same mark over that span as playoff-bound Indianapolis, Kansas City and New England. Despite the surge, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is reluctant to get too involved in the way the dominoes would have to fall for Pittsburgh to play into January.
“I don’t even know what the scenario is,” Roethlisberger said. “But I’m sure it’s still crazy.”
Nearly as crazy as nearly four hours of insanity at wintry Lambeau Field in a victory that included massive momentum swings, a rarely seen penalty on a batted ball, a perfectly executed fake punt and one last stand by a couple of veterans who are in the twilights of their career.
Yet when Matt Flynn’s last-second pass fell incomplete, Pittsburgh hopped the plane home with a puncher’s chance.
“This team just keeps fighting,” running back Le’Veon Bell said. “We faltered a bit at the beginning of the season, but guys are really fighting, trying to get into the playoffs.”
Even if they don’t make it, the Steelers hardly look like the sad sack that was woefully overmatched when it was whipped by the Patriots. Pittsburgh forced a pair of turnovers and converted both into touchdowns. Bell shook off a fumble and ran for a career-high 124 yards and the winning score with 1:25 to go.
It’s a touchdown that came after the 35-year-old Keisel — playing for only the second time in the last six weeks due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot — jumped on a loose ball deep in Green Bay territory after safety Troy Polamalu jarred it loose from a scrambling Flynn.
Thanks to an offsides penalty on a field goal attempt that eventually pushed the ball to the Green Bay 1, Bell strolled into the end zone as the Packers intentionally put up little resistance.
Green Bay’s goal was to preserve enough time on the clock to try and drive back down the field and knot the game again rather than let Pittsburgh milk the clock and kick a short field goal at the end.
Though the Packers nearly pulled it off, Tomlin defended his decision again on Monday.
“Obviously, there are a lot of options and I’m sure that they had options in terms of how they could have finished the game,” Tomlin said. “All of that is good armchair quarterback Monday stuff. We did what we had to do to win the football game.”
Win one more and the Steelers avoid the franchise’s first losing season in a decade. Get help from the Bengals, the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs, and a season filled that looked done two months ago becomes something considerably more interesting.
“”Yeah, I feel like right now we are starting to come into our own, which you want,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “We still have a shot at making the playoffs if things go in our favor next week, so we are optimistic about that.”
NOTES: Tomlin said Sanders will be limited in practice this week with a sprained knee. … LB Jarvis Jones, who was inactive on Sunday due to flu-like symptoms, is expected to practice on Tuesday.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org