Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) is sacked on a fourth down by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, right, and Will Allen (20) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Do
Don Wright
December 22, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) Ramon Foster never stopped believing. Not after the embarrassing meltdown against Tampa Bay. Not after the debacle in Cleveland. Not after the New York Jets pushed the Pittsburgh Steelers around six weeks ago.

The Steelers were a playoff team. Foster was sure of it. The self-assured guard figured it would simply take a little time for things to come together, particularly on a roster that's undergone a sizable makeover since its last postseason appearance in 2011.

''I've said it since the beginning of camp, we have the tools capable of doing it,'' Foster said. ''It starts up front with the O-line and D-line. We have a quarterback. We have a running back. We have receivers. We have a defense that is getting hot.''

So hot that Foster sees no problem with taking the feeling he had since camp opened in July a step further.

''A lot of press look at me weird when I say it, but I think we're a team that's capable of playing in Arizona,'' Foster said.

That's Arizona as in the host of the Super Bowl.

Foster wasn't bragging or making a prediction, necessarily, but giving voice to a confidence that has slowly been building throughout the fall. Pittsburgh's momentum crested in Sunday's 20-12 win over Kansas City that secured a playoff spot and set up a showdown with Cincinnati this weekend for the AFC North title and the home playoff game that goes along with it.

While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stresses the Steelers (10-5) remain a work in progress, they also look less uneven than the group that slouched through a 3-3 start. Pittsburgh is 7-2 since getting crushed by the Browns on Oct. 12. Roethlisberger is in the midst of the finest season of his career. Antonio Brown is obliterating every significant team single-season receiving record and Le'Veon Bell is entering the conversation as the most versatile running back in the league.

Heck, even the defense has shown up. That really was 36-year-old James Harrison spending a good portion of Sunday afternoon in the Kansas City backfield. The team that gave up big plays with alarming regularity earlier in the year kept the Chiefs out of the end zone. Pittsburgh is no longer just jumping to the lead, the Steelers are keeping it.

Pittsburgh has trailed for only 5 minutes since a 25-point fourth quarter outburst against Cincinnati on Dec. 7. The finishing instinct the Steelers lacked during treadmill-spinning 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013 has suddenly reappeared. In each of the last two weeks, the Steelers have held the ball early in the fourth quarter nursing a one-score lead. Twice they responded with lengthy scoring drives that sealed the outcome.

''We knew we had the talent, and that it was just a case of us being consistent and putting it together,'' Bell said. ''It might not have looked like we were making progress, but we knew that if we kept doing what we were supposed to be doing, we'd be alright.''

The Steelers certainly look like it. The impact plays against the Chiefs were made by franchise fixtures who multiple Super Bowl rings at home like Roethlisberger and Harrison to newcomers like Bell and rookie defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt who are in the midst of a playoff push for the first time.

Pittsburgh doesn't have the swagger that accompanied the franchise during its dominant run from 2005-10 where it won two Vince Lombardi trophies and played for a third. That's fine by coach Mike Tomlin, who would prefer his team get by on its play, not its reputation. The Steelers have spent the last four months bucking tradition, riding one of the NFL's most potent offenses back to prominence and sticking with a youthful core that is growing up in front of its coach's eyes.

''Same guys, but they've matured through the process,'' Tomlin said. ''That maturation process is sometimes not easy.''

But it's effective. The growing pains of September and October - and 2012 and 2013 for that matter - are now firmly in the rearview mirror. Following a two-year absence, the Steelers are back in the playoffs and have no plans on going home anytime soon.

''We had some up and downs but we just kept pounding the pavement and it's been paying off for us,'' linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. ''We've seen that if we believe, we can win. We've just got to go do it.''


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