By BOB LABRIOLA
There are two ways a team that has qualified for the playoffs can enter the postseason. It either storms in on the kind of high that only can come from playing well, or it limps in the figurative back door because it's not as bad as the rest of the competition.
The case can be made that the Steelers of 2007 limped into the postseason, because they lost two of three games leading up to a meaningless regular season finale in Baltimore, which they also lost while resting a number of starters. But the extra rest didn't really matter, because the Steelers were eliminated by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card round.
This time, Coach Mike Tomlin wants to change that.
The Steelers had a five-game winning streak snapped last Sunday in Tennessee, and by losing to the Titans they solidified things atop the AFC with one week remaining in the regular season. The Titans are the top seed, regardless of what happens this Sunday, and the Steelers are the No. 2 seed, regardless of what happens this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
But Tomlin believes the 1 p.m. game at Heinz Field still has meaning.
"There will be 12 teams in the playoff field, and there can only be one (to win the Super Bowl)," said Tomlin. "I guarantee you that one will be one that is on the rise heading into January football. That always appears to be the case. We have been a team on the rise up until last weekend. Hopefully we can put that behind us with a solid performance this week and then go into January with the right frame of mind as we chase our goals."
The Steelers are 11-4 against the toughest schedule in recent NFL history, and they have navigated a couple of killer stretches along the way. One of their more impressive feats was putting together the five-game winning streak they took to Tennessee, fashioned as it was with wins over San Diego, at New England, vs. Cincinnati on a short week, vs. Dallas and at Baltimore in a game for the AFC North title.
Then they went to Tennessee, turned the ball over four times and lost decisively, 31-14.
"We're not going to ride the emotional rollercoaster, win or lose," said Tomlin. "We won five or so games in a row, and we were the same football team. I'm not going to go in the other direction and try to make more out of this loss than what it is. We didn't do enough good things to win in a hostile environment vs. a good team. It is what it is. We put it with the rest of our losses for the season. It's ours, we take ownership of it. We hopefully make corrections and are better for it and move forward into our next challenge, and that is what we intend to do."
Enter the Cleveland Browns, a.k.a., the next challenge.
And not only are the Browns the next challenge, they're also the Steelers' only chance to go into the playoffs on a high note. That's why Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field definitely will not resemble the final weekend of the preseason. Safety Ryan Clark has been ruled out because of an injured shoulder, but outside of him it will be all-hands-on-deck.
"It's our next game," said Tomlin. "We're playing the game, and we are playing to win. That's what the National Football League is all about. You rebound from negative performances, and we have had a few this year. Thankfully, we have always bounced back and found a way to win the following week. Everything we do on Sunday will be with that in mind."