CLEVELAND – Relevance.
Finally, after 12 weekends of this 2013 season, the Steelers have achieved something that long had been taken for granted. They are relevant at Thanksgiving.
It has become an accepted if meaningless exercise to judge an NFL team by the "if the season ended today" barometer. If the season had ended on that late-September day when the Steelers were returning from London during a second red-eye flight following a loss to the previously winless Minnesota Vikings, they would have had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But if the season ended during their bus ride home from Cleveland last Sunday, the Steelers would have been the final team in the AFC Playoffs. The fluid nature of the playoff picture was brought into focus when the Steelers dropped one spot to seventh in the conference, behind the Tennessee Titans, by midnight, but you get the idea.
Their fifth win in the last seven outings was a somewhat easy 27-11 TKO of the Browns, and that these Steelers have improved to the degree where they could have a somewhat easy time with any NFL opponent is as noteworthy as the ground they have made up in the standings.
The Steelers are far from dominant, but they no longer contribute to their own demise with turnovers, penalties, glaring mental errors, and inexplicable blown assignments. Since the humbling loss in New England, the Steelers are plus-7 in turnover ratio and averaging just four penalties a game. They have not fallen behind by multiple scores before the end of the first quarter, and they have avoided the kind of late-game collapses that had cost them in losses to the Bears and the Patriots.
In defeating the Browns, the Steelers were workmanlike. The temperature at kickoff qualified last Sunday as the seventh coldest work day in franchise history, but they never allowed the elements to deter them from their plan and the execution of it.
It helps to have a great quarterback, and right now the Steelers have a great quarterback who is playing great.
Ben Roethlisberger is giving his team exactly what it needs at this juncture of this season, and nothing typifies great play more than that. Often, the statistics accompanying his efforts aren't the type to make him the star of most fantasy leagues, but Roethlisberger is making the plays to help his team win. Maybe the best explanation is this: more than just playing quarterback, Roethlisberger is being the quarterback.
The defense lined up for a second straight weekend without Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley, and if the unit survived the Lions without those two, then it dominated without them against the Browns. Four takeaways represented a dramatic improvement in that department, but also impressive were the five times the Browns were forced to punt over the course of about 31 minutes of game time. During those couple of quarters, the Steelers built a 20-3 lead, which against these Browns was just as insurmountable as it would've been against the September version of themselves.
In the run-up to the trip here to face the Browns, Mike Tomlin was talking about what his team's mind-set needed to be to leave with a victory, but what he was saying also can apply to the rest of the Steelers' regular season.
"We have to be ready for this to be a gritty performance," Tomlin was saying. "Some of the things that you normally think about going into a game – unit goals, yards, things of that nature – are irrelevant. What is relevant is that we do what's required to win the game."
There is no hope for the Steelers to remodel their season statistics, no chance for them to rehabilitate their standing in so many of the categories in which the NFL ranks its teams. But if they continue to find ways to fashion winning performances, they can be relevant come playoff time.
And that's actually what it's all about.
Read the rest of this column in its entirety in the current issue of Steelers Digest. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005.