Today, it just seems a lot more real. Their chances to make the playoffs. Their status as a team "nobody wants to face in the playoffs." Their offense as a force capable of carrying them deep into the playoffs. All of it.
Up until Sunday night, so much of that seemed to be nothing but lip service, grist for the endless hours of sports talk that must be filled each and every day of each and every week. But that changed over the course of three hours at Heinz Field with the Denver Broncos. There is a legitimacy that comes with an opponent ranked No. 1 in the NFL in seven different defensive categories, and more than being competitive in Seattle against the Seahawks and going to Cincinnati and beating the Bengals, what the Steelers showed against these Broncos was going to cast them either as contenders or pretenders.
When Sunday dawned, the Steelers had themselves a nine-game winning streak in December, and when night fell over the North Shore the streak was 10 as a result of a 34-27 victory over the Broncos that stamped them as contenders, proved their offense is as difference-making as any in the NFL, and provided them with more evidence of their own resiliency along with one more example of what they are capable of accomplishing as a team as a result of it all.
"I like the fact we have a group that doesn't shrink when the kitchen gets hot, a group that's going to fight, a group that's not going to live in its fears," Coach Mike Tomlin had said on the Friday before this game. "I think all of those things get an opportunity to reveal themselves in December."
The Steelers were presented with an opportunity to reveal all of those things in 60 minutes of organized mayhem against the Broncos, and a record crowd at Heinz Field and a CBS audience had to be thoroughly entertained as they went about the work of doing just that.
Game action as the Steelers hosted the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field.
The kitchen got very hot very early, even though it seemed as though it got that way because the Steelers set it on fire themselves. Through the first 30 minutes of the game, the Broncos offense converted 8-for-8 on third downs, was perfect in the red zone, and Brock Osweiler-to-Emmanuel Sanders was looking like Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown, only better.
The Steelers' deficit at halftime was 27-13, and at some point during the 12-minute intermission they were able to summon the mental toughness to start the process of turning the tide. Whether it happened through the efforts of some veteran players, or some coaches, or some combination, the significant development was that it happened for the Steelers at a time when they needed it badly. They needed it badly not only to change the course of a game they had to win to maintain control of their playoff fate with just a fortnight of the regular season remaining, but they needed it badly to prove to themselves that they had evolved into something better than what they were back on Sept. 10 for that season-opening Thursday night in Foxborough.
What the Steelers did in the second half against the Broncos answered all of those questions. Their porous defense suddenly stiffened, and a Broncos offense that was having its way in the first half was forced to punt on its first six possessions of the second half. In the meantime, Roethlisberger and his receivers did what they always do, which is make the opposing defense look ordinary. And over the course of those events, the Steelers outscored Denver, 21-0, to turn a sizeable deficit into just enough of a lead.
"When things aren't going well, often times people stop talking and communicating with each other," said Tomlin. "The thing I thought the guys did more than anything was that they never stopped talking, they never stopped communicating, and they never stopped making the necessary adjustments. When things get bad, you can't go mute, and they didn't. I think that was the catalyst, more than anything, for the second half."
That's an intangible, a necessary intangible for a team with an eye cast on doing more than just qualifying for the playoffs, because things rarely go according to plan. Or as Mike Tyson often said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Combine that intangible with the level of execution necessary to roll up 377 yards of offense and score 34 points on the acclaimed best defense in the NFL, and there is something more legitimate about these Steelers today.
"I think we're a team that doesn't ride the emotional rollercoaster," said Tomlin. "You acknowledge it exists, but for the most part we do a good job of maintaining an even keel. The veteran presence of a lot of guys help with that, Ben and James (Harrison) and other guys who have been around. They do a great job of helping the young guys maintain that stable approach to it as you deal with the ebb and flow that comes in football games like we were just in."
And in the games that come in the postseason, too.