Labriola On

Labriola on win over the Ravens

A lot of time has been spent on what they don't have, and there is some merit in judging them along those parameters. In their line of work, the difference between success and failure is determined by numbers on a scoreboard, and so if you're lacking in some way, then that deficiency can end up being the fatal flaw that dooms your season.

The 2016 Steelers officially are a playoff team thanks to their 31-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens yesterday at Heinz Field, and becoming a playoff team proves they have overcome what they don't have to the level necessary to qualify for the postseason. Winning the AFC North Division isn't the ultimate goal, but it's a step along the way, a step the franchise always has believed has value.

To win the division, to get to 10-5 with only a meaningless regular season game remaining before the tournament, the Steelers answered a four-game losing streak with what's currently a six-game winning streak – the longest of the Mike Tomlin era – while bringing along a group of young defensive players, who now that they know what they're doing, have injected a level of speed and athleticism to a unit that is being re-made because too many of the stars of the previous era had gotten old all at once.

How the Steelers built that winning streak over the past six weekends varied to some degree, because in different weeks they were depending upon different players and relying on different parts of their game to be the reason they won. But if how they did it was different from one week to the next, if how the Steelers navigated their way to road wins in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Buffalo, and Cincinnati sandwiched around two at home against the New York Giants and then the Ravens was different, what fueled the run was not.

"As this road gets increasingly narrow as we all push toward Houston (for Super Bowl LI), you have to be a fighter, you have to be a competitor," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "You're going to be faced with adversity at times along the way, and whether or not you continue on that journey depends on that competitive spirit. If we learned nothing else from our group in Cincinnati, that competitive spirit was on display and on display in a big way. I don't take anything for granted. Sometimes individuals and teams rise up in the face of adversity, and sometimes they don't."

That was what Tomlin said about his team after it erased a 20-9 halftime deficit and turned it into a 24-20 victory over the Bengals on Dec. 18, and that there were similarities between that and what transpired over four quarters vs. the Ravens bode well for their lifespan in this upcoming postseason. Against the Ravens, the deficit was 20-10 less than a minute into the fourth quarter, but from there the Steelers went on a 21-7 run to come away with a 31-27 victory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are AFC North Champions. Check out the celebration on the field and in the locker room.

Against the Bengals, it had been a couple of big plays by the young cornerbacks on possession downs that provided the offense with the opportunities it required to score the deciding points, but against the Ravens in the fourth quarter yesterday the Steelers offense was dominant.

In that fourth quarter, Roethlisberger completed 14-of-17 for 164 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 146.1. And two of the three incompletions resulted from spiking the ball to stop the clock. Antonio Brown caught six passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. Le'Veon Bell rushed four times for 41 yards and a touchdown, and he also caught a 7-yard pass for another touchdown. The Steelers scored touchdowns on each of their possessions in the fourth quarter against a Ravens defense that came into the game ranked in the top six in eight different defensive categories and was No. 7 in a ninth.

It also should be noted that none of those statistics have a chance to be accumulated by the Steelers unless the offensive line was controlling things up front, and there are several numerical ways to support the contention that the Steelers' front five was doing just that. Baltimore's defense had spent 14 weeks allowing opponents to rush for 3.5 yards a carry and 82.1 yards per game, but yesterday those numbers were 5.8 per carry and 127 for the game.

The Steelers also finished their drives – 3-for-4 in the red zone – and defended their goal line vigorously – the Ravens were 2-for-5 in the red zone. The Steelers were assessed half as much penalty yardage, but they had to overcome a minus-1 turnover ratio and a nine-minute deficit in time of possession.

It's often the case that the tale of the statistics will see-saw back and forth between the contestants, with the game's outcome then being determined by other factors. And often the most significant of those is what might be called resiliency, or will, or competitive spirit. That's what it might be called, but to know what it looks like, go back and re-watch the Steelers' final offensive play of the game. A slant pass thrown right on the button to a 181-pound guy who makes the catch in traffic, and then fights through a couple of guys – one of whom has a hand in his facemask – and extends the ball over the goal line with nine seconds left on a clock that wouldn't have stopped if he didn't score.

That right there is what these Steelers do have.

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