KANSAS CITY – The Steelers had been here before. They had been a team that carried a good record into the second half of a season only to see it all begin to unravel at the hands of an inferior opponent. They are taught to believe it's what they do that matters, and they had seen things crumble under a wave of their own gaffes and turnovers.
Yes, the Steelers had been here before. Literally, too, because the unraveling of the 2009 season began in a game against this very team played on the same piece of real estate. Those Steelers came here, and seemingly against all odds, they lost to a Chiefs team that was losing and not all at all certain it was real interested in buying into what rookie coach Todd Haley was selling.
This time, last Sunday to be precise, the Steelers traveled to the heartland in a tight competition with the Baltimore Ravens for the top spot in the AFC North, a fight that could escalate into a bid for the best record in the AFC. Through a tryptophan haze on Thanksgiving night the Steelers had seen the Ravens bludgeon a group of 49ers who traded punches throughout but had to be drained by traveling three time zones for a Thursday night road game. Regardless, the outcome left the Ravens at 8-3, with a head-to-head sweep over the Steelers being their ace in the hole.
Clearly, the Steelers' only recourse was to match with a win of their own, and this time they didn't stumble against an inferior opponent. This time they took care of their business and kept up the pace. It was 13-9, and like just about every other winning performance in this weird NFL season, it was imperfect, but it got the job done at a time of the season where the best thing a team can do for itself is stack wins.
Even though it wasn't certain until the Arrowhead Stadium game clock ticked down to triple zeroes, there had been strong evidence to indicate these Steelers were not a group to fall into the very trap that ensnared the 2009 edition at this very site. That game had begun with Jamaal Charles returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and it didn't end until the Steelers used turnovers and penalties to negate their own complete statistical superiority, and still the Chiefs needed overtime to win it. This time, though, there was none of that mental aimlessness permeating the Steelers sideline.
Mike Tomlin deserves a measure of the credit for that, because he has been able to keep the competitive fires burning in this locker room. Over the course of this season, there have been changes – to the starting lineup, in how roles are allocated, who is in uniform on game days – and in the words of one decorated veteran, "There are no sacred cows."
The Steelers came here last weekend and did what they could not in 2009, because today they are what they were not back then.
A team that still has a long way to go but one that remains on the rise, with a coach doing whatever is necessary to keep it that way.
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