Presented by

It's the most wonderful time of the year

In the latter stages of what ultimately played out as a "crazy year," between a win over Baltimore and a loss to Washington in early December, guard David DeCastro acknowledged the toll of adhering to COVID-19 protocols, the lack of fans in the stands, the uncertainty hanging over the season, and how "it felt dead out there a little bit" against the Ravens.

"You're a little bit like, 'What are we even doing out here?'" DeCastro admitted then.

But with the playoffs at hand such emotions are no longer a concern.

"I'm excited," DeCastro insisted this week. "Playoff time, if you can't get excited for this then you might have something wrong with you."

The Steelers prepare for the Wild Card Round matchup against the Cleveland Browns

The Steelers haven't made it this far since the 2017 season, and they haven't won a postseason game since their run to the AFC Championship Game at the conclusion of the 2016 campaign.

Their opponent Sunday night at Heinz Field, the Cleveland Browns, hasn't tasted the playoffs since the 2002 season and has a chance to advance against a division rival and the team Cleveland beat in last Sunday's regular-season finale.

If you listen hard enough, you can hear the voice of Bill Parcells from an aging-but-unforgettable NFL Films eavesdrop.

"Hey, fellas, this is what you work all offseason for. This is why you lift all them weights."

No wonder "urgency" has been the word of the week for the Steelers.

It's been a while, too long.

And the next such opportunity could be a long time coming, if at all.

"I tell people, 'I've been in the league for four years, this is my second time making it. Don't take it for granted," wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. "It's hard to get where we are, in the postseason.

"Make sure every play counts."

From a first-quarter extra point to a last-second field goal attempt.

From second-and-10 on the game-opening possession to fourth-and-inches with seconds left.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger understands.

He's won the Super Bowl twice and he's been there three times.

But he'll take the field at Heinz Field on Sunday night not counting on ever doing so again in a postseason setting.

"I think every player should approach this playoff game like it could be their last playoff game ever," Roethlisberger maintained. "We've used examples of players and coaches who have been in this league for a long time that have never been in the postseason, never been to a Super Bowl, whatever it may be.

"I think it's prudent for every player to take that mindset and approach. I know I am because nothing is guaranteed in the game, or this world."

A win guarantees only a one-week extension of the season.

A loss and it's over.

It's that time of the year on the NFL calendar where opportunity and finality clash.

"This game right here, all the dadgum cards are on the table," defensive coordinator Keith Butler observed.

Added head coach Mike Tomlin: "We are excited about being in the tournament. We understand the scarcity of these things. We don't take that for granted.

"That's one of the things that I love most about the single-elimination tournament, this precisions opportunity to live out and pursue our dreams."

The Steelers have been emphasizing as much to themselves individually and collectively all week, probably since last Sunday's bus ride back from Cleveland.

It's be about next-men-up and X's & O's and execution and emotion.

But as much as anything else it'll be about embracing the moment.

Perhaps that explains why Roethlisberger gathered the offense again on Wednesday on the field just before practice, and emphasized at least one more time what can't be said often enough.

"We talked about the urgency, this is an elimination round, everyone do their assignment," Smith-Schuster reported. "We gotta hit first, hit harder, hit fast."