As of late afternoon on Oct. 12, the Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be a team in disarray. They lost by 21 points in Cleveland that day, dropping their record to 3-3.
"Our record says we’re an average football team," Ben Roethlisberger said after that game.
Two and a half months later, the standings tell a far different story. The Steelers, 11-5, wrapped up the AFC North title and secured a first-round playoff home game by downing the rival Bengals on Sunday night, 27-17. Pittsburgh closed the year by winning eight of its final 10 games, including two victories over Cincinnati.
The NFL's playoff field was set with the outcome: Pittsburgh will host Baltimore in what's sure to be a heated affair next weekend, while Cincinnati will travel to take on AFC South champion Indianapolis.
Three thoughts on the Steelers' Week 17 victory:
Pittsburgh lost its superstar running back, Bell, to a scary-looking knee injury. After Bell made a reception, he was tackled low (but legally) by Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson, causing Bell's knee to hyperextend. He did not return to the game.
Bengals wide receiver Green then exited following a critical fourth-quarter fumble. The turnover occurred just a split-second before Green took a vicious hit, as he was falling, from Steelers safety Mike Mitchell. Green's upper body bent awkwardly under the force of that hit, and he then was taken to the locker room to be evaluated for a possible concussion.
In either case, even a semi-serious injury could sound a death knell on the season. Green remains the only true downfield threat Cincinnati has in the passing game -- a 4th-and-19 check-down toss by Andy Dalton to seal the loss was proof of that, if any was needed. Bell, meanwhile, finished the regular season with 2,215 yards, and has little depth behind him with LeGarrette Blount now running out New England's backfield.
"He's a tremendous asset to this team," Pittsburgh WR Antonio Brown said of Bell. "To do what we want to do, we're going to need him with us."
For what it's worth, which may not be much, the Bengals do have an extra day to prepare for their playoff opener -- they kick off Sunday at 1 p.m. ET in Indianapolis; Pittsburgh drew the Saturday night slot.
The Bengals have some experience playing without Green this season, too. They posted a 1-1-1 mark in Green's absence during Weeks 6-8, with Mohamed Sanu stepping up to deliver a pair of 100-yard receiving games. The Steelers have not been through such adversity with regard to Bell.
They'll be hoping for the next few days that hurdle does not arrive at the worst possible time.
2. Yet more love for Antonio Brown: Bell deserves consideration for both Offensive Player of the Year and MVP, even though there's no chance he takes home the latter this season. There is a case to be made, however, that Steelers WR Antonio Brown is actually the most important player shy of Ben Roethlisberger on this Pittsburgh offense.
His seven catches Sunday gave him 129 for the regular season, good enough to become the first Steeler ever to lead the league in receiving. Oh, right, and he also took a punt back 71 yards to the house, reversing course midway through and outracing the entire Bengals coverage unit.
For as impressive as that play was, his late 63-yard touchdown reception was the real show-stopper. He and Roethlisberger displayed an almost indescribable rapport on the play, with Roethlisberger throwing the ball Brown's direction despite tight coverage from Dre Kirkpatrick and Brown rewarding that faith by shaking free just in time for the catch.
No discussion of the NFL's best receivers or top QB-WR combos can take place at this point without Brown being mentioned. Every play he makes comes with an ease nearly unmatched by any player in the league.
Enter Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, who combined to force all three of Cincinnati's turnovers between them -- McCain picking off a pair of Andy Dalton passes in the first half and Blake helping to wrap his team's win by forcing that Green fumble late.
"We've taken our lumps and they've remained singularly focused and stayed together," Tomlin said of the Steelers' secondary. "They've remained confident and made plays. I give them credit for doing that. Their play and our play is on the upswing because of that."
Yet, somewhat lost in all the talk about Pittsburgh's secondary is the improvement shown up front.
Another injury hit along the D-line when Brett Keisel was lost for the season a few weeks back. The newly crowned AFC North champions have stayed on course nonetheless thanks in large part to the continued emergence of Cam Heyward and the quick improvement shown by Stephon Tuitt.
The Steelers have a solid talent base at linebacker, what with Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons, rookie Ryan Shazier and the franchise-tagged Jason Worilds. But Dick LeBeau's defense asks its three-man front at least to play to a stalemate, freeing up the second and third levels to make plays.
Heyward, Tuitt and co. have done that and then some in recent weeks.