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5 for Friday: Steelers need help? It's happened before

Even if you haven't had a losing season in 18 years, you're bound to have some instances here or there where you just made or just missed the playoffs.

After all, every one of those seasons isn't going to end in a division championship.

In fact, of their 18 consecutive seasons at .500 or better, 12 of those have ended with the Steelers in the postseason, meaning six have not.

That also means that there have been close calls both ways, including this season, where the Steelers not only enter the weekend needing a win to keep their streak of non-losing seasons – the third-longest in NFL history – alive, but to get into the postseason, as well.

This time around, the Steelers (8-8) need to beat the Browns Sunday at Acrisure Stadium, while also getting wins from the Bills and Jets. Or, more importantly, they need the Patriots and Dolphins to not win. Either or both of those games ending in a tie also would suffice.

The Steelers have been in this situation under head coach Mike Tomlin six times before, most recently last year, and have come out with the right combination of events taking place twice, in 2021 and 2015, while coming up on the short end of things four times.

Who can forget how that 2021 regular season ended, when the Steelers not only needed to beat the Ravens, but have the one-win Jaguars knock off the Colts, while also not having the last game of the regular season between the Raiders and Chargers end in a tie?

The Steelers took care of business, but needed overtime to beat the Ravens, 16-13. Miraculously, the Jaguars beat the Colts, 26-11, to set up the final part of the equation.

A tie would have put both the Raiders and Chargers into the playoffs and left the Steelers on the outside looking in.

And the game went to overtime, tied at 29. The Raiders kicked a field goal on the opening possession of overtime, with the Chargers answering with one of their own to tie the game again at 32 with 4:35 remaining.

The Raiders drove to Los Angeles 46 with two minutes remaining in overtime when running back Josh Jacobs picked up seven yards on a run with 38 seconds remaining. The Chargers called timeout.

With Los Angeles apparently not content to take the tie, the Raiders picked up 10 yards on another Jacobs run on the next play, called timeout and then kicked the game-winning field goal to send the Chargers home for the season and boost the Steelers into the playoffs.

Those close calls – both ways – are nothing new for Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward.

"Too many," he said when asked how many times he's been through this. "Yeah. I'm not going to get too high or too low. You take your lumps when you lose. But you also learn when you win. December had to be our month to get to this point. It was. Now, we're in January with a chance to get to the playoffs."

Heyward has been with the Steelers since they selected him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

And while last season worked out in favor of Heyward and the Steelers, the previous two times they needed help, they didn't get it or failed to win their final game, making it a moot point.

In 2019, the Steelers, who played all but two games that season without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, were 8-5 before losing their next two games. Still, they entered the final week of the season needing a win and a loss or tie by the Titans at Houston.

In that instance, it didn't work out. Not only did the Steelers lose to the Ravens, 28-10, the Titans also won, beating the Texans, 35-14.

In 2018, things were even more crazy. At 8-6-1, the Steelers hosted the Bengals needing a win or tie coupled with a loss or tie by the Ravens to win the AFC North. They also could get into with a win or a tie by the Colts and Titans to get in as a Wild Card.

The Steelers got their win, 16-13, with the game ending with several minutes remaining in Baltimore's game at M&T Bank Stadium. But the Ravens edged the Browns, 26-24, as several of the Steelers and many of their fans watched the game play out on the stadium replay board.

The Colts also beat the Titans, 33-17, leaving the Steelers out of the postseason.

In 2015, the Steelers finished their season at Cleveland needing to win and for the Bills, who were three-point underdogs at home, to upset the 10-5 Jets.

The Steelers handled their business, beating the Browns, 28-12, to improve to 10-6. Meanwhile, the Bills jumped out to a 13-0 lead and never trailed as they beat the Jets, 22-17. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had been great for the Jets all season long, threw three interceptions in the game in the best opportunity in his 17-year-career to get into the postseason.

In 2013, the Steelers again needed to beat the Browns – a common theme – and have the Chargers lose to the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chargers were 14 ½-point favorites in the game with the Chiefs, who had already wrapped up the AFC West, resting a number of starters.

But the Chiefs were more than game, taking a 24-14 lead into the fourth quarter. The Chargers rallied to tie the game with 3:24 remaining, but Chase Daniel got the Chiefs into position to win the game with 8 seconds left in regulation. Ryan Succop's 41-yard field goal was no good and the Chargers won the game in overtime, 27-24.

In 2009, the Steelers started 6-2, only to lose their next five games to fall to 6-7. They won their next two games at Green Bay and at home against the Ravens to give themselves a chance going into the regular season finale at Miami.

But they needed a lot of help. Not only did the Steelers need to beat the Dolphins, they needed the Texans and Jets to lose, or the Jets and Ravens to lose, or the Texans, Jets and Broncos to lose.

The Steelers took care of their end of the deal, beating the Dolphins, 30-24. But the Ravens, Texans and Jets all won, ending the Steelers' season at 9-7.

Sometimes it works out, others it does not. But it's better to at least have a chance than to simply be playing a meaningless game.

• In his three fourth-quarter comebacks this season, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has completed 17 of 21 passes for 176 yards with two touchdowns and posted a passer rating of over 132.

We don't know what the clutch gene is. It hasn't been identified. But we know it when we see it.

And we've seen it in Pickett.

• There's a common feeling that Tomlin wants to ride his lead running back into the ground. But it's really not true.

Look at this season as an example. Najee Harris leads the Steelers with 249 carries for 954 yards. Jaylen Warren has 71 carries for 343 yards.

That's essentially a little more than a 3-to-1 ratio between the lead runner and his backup.

And it's really not anything new.

The Steelers have had seven different running backs lead them in rushing in Tomlin's 15 seasons. They've had 11 different running backs finish second on the team in rushing during that period.

Prior to this season, the lead running back in Tomlin's offense has averaged 240 carries over the course of the season. Right now, Harris has 249 attempts, though remember that the Steelers play 17 games now rather than 16.

In that same period, the team's second-leading rusher has averaged around 86 carries. Jaylen Warren has 71 this season entering Week 18.

Now, have there been seasons where the lead runner has gotten the majority of the work? Certainly. But that's typically been when the lead runner is head and shoulders above the second back.

Tomlin's not going to simply give the backup running back carries just for the heck of it. That player has to deserve those carries.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• As for how it's decided how and when Harris swaps out with Warren, it's not all that complicated.

Warren is obviously the third-down back. But you'll also notice times when Warren stays on the field on first and second down.

"If I'm out there on third down and we pick up a first down and want to go quick, I'll stay out there," Warren said.

Of course, he'll also be out there when Harris needs a break, as well.

But Tomlin also obviously trusts Warren in key situations. He's gotten 29 of his 71 carries this season in the past three games.

"I'm glad I earned that trust," Warren said.

• Harris needs just 68 rushing yards against the Browns to pass Le'Veon Bell for the most by a Steelers running back in his first two seasons with 2,222.

After a slow start this season, Harris has averaged 74 yards rushing per game over the past eight games. And the Steelers are averaging 146 rushing yards per game over that period.

They're also stopping the run far better this season than they did a year ago.

If they do happen to make the playoffs, they are in a much better place than they were a year ago, when they averaged just 93.1 yards rushing per game and were dead last stopping the run.

Running games and rushing defense travel.