The Steelers are the only non-division leading team in the AFC with as many as six victories, which puts them in the driver's seat among those competing for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. But there are still six weekends left in this regular season, and four other AFC teams are just one-game behind the Steelers – each of them with five wins – and then there are the tiebreakers to consider and …
"The numbers can tell you what you want them to tell you," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his news conference today. "We are what we are coming out of the bye – we're a 6-4 team. The bye gives you an opportunity to take a look back from a spectator standpoint, to look at the big picture and watch others compete. There's fun in that, we enjoy doing that, but we met on Monday coming out of the bye, and we all came to the conclusion that we've seen enough and we know enough to know we don't need to look outside of the stadium we're in at this juncture. We've done enough, we're in the thick of it enough, that we simply need to focus on this week's challenge. If we continue to meet this week's challenge, whatever this week's challenge is, that can be true as we move forward."
The Steelers control their own playoff fate, and yes, they would make the playoffs if the season ended today, but the point Tomlin stressed with his team as it returned to work from its bye was that the season doesn't end today.
"I always want to provide that clarity for the guys as we come out of the bye," said Tomlin. "We're in the thick of things. We understand that. We're not where we desire to be. We could be better. We could be worse. The reality is we know enough to know we need to be focused on the task at hand. We don't need to be looking outside of our stadiums."
The first of their last half-dozen regular season games comes on Sunday in Seattle. The rest of the schedule brings Indianapolis and Denver to Heinz Field, while the remaining road trips include visits to Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Cleveland.
"Regardless of what perspective you take on the race, whether it's us chasing somebody or whether it's somebody nipping at our heels, it's irrelevant to me. That's a waste of time," said Tomlin. "Your focus needs to be on the challenges in front of you, because that's what you can control. That's what's important. If we handle that business, our position is going to be no worse seven days from today. If we do that repeatedly over the course of five or six weeks, I would imagine we'll be in pretty good position. That's my mentality. That's the mentality I'll sell and instill in our group. And it will remain unchanged."
The Steelers, Browns, New York Giants, and Saints all enjoyed last weekend off, and they were the final NFL teams to get a bye. From now on, it's 16 games each weekend as the NFL regular season heads down its home stretch. As for how the Steelers utilized theirs, Tomlin said:
"We wanted to provide rehabilitation opportunities for the injured, rest opportunities for the elderly and weary, and work opportunities for the rest. That's what we were able to get done a week ago. Those who had nagging injuries were taken care of, and we appear to be as healthy a group as we've been since this thing started."
As for any self-analysis or self-scouting that can be a typical byproduct of a bye week, Tomlin admitted there was some of that going on, too.
"Just from an analysis perspective, I look at some of that stuff, we look at some of that stuff, but we don't read too much into it," said Tomlin. "The numbers can tell you whatever you want them to tell you this time of the year. We've had some success running the ball, but at times we've had to run the ball because of some of the circumstances at the quarterback position, for example. We've given up some passing yards in some games, some of it due to negligence on our part, some of it due to our willingness to do what's required to stop the run."
While saying he sees the Steelers as healthy as they have been since September, Tomlin also wouldn't commit to doing anything special as a safeguard against the possibility of future injuries, such as one to DeAngelo Williams that would leave the team with Jordan Todman and Isaiah Pead, two running backs without a lot of NFL experience and with even less experience as Steelers players. Even with that as a possibility, Tomlin said he's not inclined to force-feed playing time for Todman or Pead starting this Sunday in Seattle, for example.
"It's going to take us all to meet this week's challenge," said Tomlin. "I mean what I say when I'm talking about we need to be singularly focused on this week's challenge. I'm not worried about down the road. Down the road will get you beat this week. We need to focus on how we can utilize (Todman and Pead) and combinations of them to meet this week's challenge, and there's enough in this week's challenge to justify that conversation and consideration."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Matt Spaeth appears to be the only guy who had an injury prior (to the bye) that we're monitoring in terms of practice participation. He did practice on Monday. It'll be good to make decisions regarding helmet availability based on how we want to utilize people as opposed to injury. That's a positive."