"The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have."
Vince Lombardi expressed that belief once upon a time, and some 50 years later it can apply to the 2014 AFC North Division champions. It can apply to their entire journey so far this season, and it also speaks in particular to Sunday night's events at Heinz Field.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are now the reigning AFC North Division champions as a result of their 27-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, and what they went through to win it was a reflection of what they went through to get themselves into such a game in the first place.
The Steelers had not won a division title since 2010 and hadn't qualified for the postseason since 2011, and when the dust settled on that Wild Card Round loss in overtime to the Denver Broncos to close the book on 2011, theirs was an aging roster littered with players whose salary cap numbers had outpaced their level of production. The "transition" phase was underway even if no one would admit it publicly. There were a couple of 8-8 seasons during which the locker room lost James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Hines Ward, Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke, Larry Foote, and Antwaan Randle El, seasons during which the offensive line had to be rebuilt, seasons spent initiating and implementing the changes that would allow the 2014 Steelers to develop into what they are.
These Steelers were by no means a finished product when this season opened on Sept. 7, and in hindsight that performance against the Cleveland Browns foreshadowed the schizophrenic nature this group would display more consistently than anything else through the first half of this season. The Steelers could look dominant or inept, and sometimes both in the same game or in the same half of a game. Inconsistency was seemingly their identity.
Then, a formula emerged, and the Steelers learned that if they followed the formula there was not a team in the league they could not defeat. The formula involved being efficient offensively in situational football – third downs, red zone, goal line – and then supplementing that with a turnover ratio that was even or a plus. When those things happened, as Coach Mike Tomlin put it, the Steelers could ring up the scoreboard, and 124 points during a three-game winning streak over Houston, Indianapolis, and Baltimore proved his point.
Even with that, there still was adversity to face. Injuries. A defense that was hemorrhaging big plays, and a secondary being re-tooled as a result. Disappointing losses to the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints. But what they had developed as a vaccine for those diseases was a resiliency that was allowing them to continue competing while believing. That's when one unit started picking up another. When the offense, defense, and special teams would put together a sequence to take control of a game. When their great players found ways to be great at the opportune times.
And so it was that the Steelers came to this rematch against the Bengals on Sunday night, and they needed to call upon every morsel of that resiliency.
Their quarterback was struck with a stomach flu and spent the pregame warmup period sticking as close to the indoor plumbing as possible. They would lose their running back to a hyperextended knee injury. Twice their superstar receiver dropped third down passes in the first quarter. There was a disastrous attempt at a fake punt. They turned it over twice. When a holding penalty nullified a 59-yard gain, that meant their longest run would end up being for 6 yards. They converted a lesser percentage on third downs, in the red zone, and in goal-to-go situations than their opponent. They ended up trailing in time of possession by almost 10 minutes.
There were portions of this season when a similar sequence of events would have sentenced the Steelers to a defeat, but they are now a better and more well-developed team.
Ben Roethlisberger gathered himself from a weakened, dehydrated, out-of-sorts fog created by the flu bug and put together a typical Ben Roethlisberger performance. Antonio Brown came back from those two drops and turned in two electrifying touchdowns. The two turnovers by the offense were mitigated by three takeaways from the defense. Their pass rush was better than the Bengals'. Their return game was better than the Bengals'. They were better in the moments that decided the game.
Such as the moment in the fourth quarter when Antwon Blake came back to force a fumble that he recovered himself after a pass to A.J. Green put the Bengals in position to erase what was left of the Steelers' 20-17 lead. Or the one where Brown and Roethlisberger made the Bengals pay dearly for that turnover with some big-play magic. Or the one where Jason Worilds turned desperation into impossibility with a 9-yard sack to create a third-and-19 for a Bengals offense in desperate need of some of their own big-play magic.
And so they are about to enter the AFC Playoffs as division champions, as a No. 3 seed, as the host to the season rubber match with the Baltimore Ravens at 8:15 p.m. this Saturday. These Steelers are not a complete team, nor a consistent team, nor an overpowering team.
What they have become is a resilient team capable of using what they have to make do. And that was kind of Lombardi's point all along.