By Rob Rossi
Handing off to a no-name running back. A fake punt. The Big Play from a secondary known for giving those up.
This is how the Steelers were going to win the AFC North.
And that's exactly what they did.
“Remarkable,” Art Rooney II said.
The team president said it all with one word.
There is no telling what is next for these Steelers. The very spark for their offense, Le'Veon Bell, has a hyperextended right knee. Maybe he plays against Baltimore on Saturday night at Heinz Field. Surely the Ravens — all right, definitely the Ravens — will target that injury if Bell plays in his first playoff game.
Everything could end, and soon.
I wouldn't bet on that, though.
I'd bet on Mike Tomlin's team. I'm sold, actually.
My confidence has nothing to do with Ben Roethlisberger, though it has to comfort Steelers Nation knowing their quarterback is playing better than any one of the starting signal callers for other AFC playoff teams.
Sure, Antonio Brown can't be covered by two defensive backs — or maybe an entire secondary — and that gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley a lot of freedom to tinker with designs and calls. But that's not why I like the Steelers to at least make it to Denver for Round 2.
Nope, I like their defense.
Yes, the same defense that I've referred to as the worst for this proud franchise since before Joe Greene was drafted in 1969. That was a fair opinion a month ago. Not now.
Entering 2015, the Steelers have one of the most improved defenses in the NFL.
They've allowed 21 or fewer points in four consecutive games. They've become stout in the red zone, which is where the only differentiating defense is played in this league, and they are — get this — making splash plays.
No, get this: They're making splash plays without Troy Polamalu.
On Sunday night, with his team holding a three-point lead and about six minutes left in the fourth quarter, Tomlin told his defense to “get ready,” cornerback Brice McCain said.
A fake punt was coming.
The pass by the punter faked nobody and went nowhere, and the AFC North suddenly was there to be won by the Bengals.
So why wasn't it?
Because the Steelers have grown into something special.
“Communication,” McCain said. “We're communicating better.”
So third-year cornerback Antwon Blake was ready when Cincinnati's stud receiver, A.J. Green, caught a pass that appeared destined to position the Bengals for at least a tying field-goal attempt.
“Sometimes he tends to carry the ball a little loosely,” Blake said. “Sometimes he doesn't pay for it.”
Green paid. Blake collected.
His strip-and-recover was the defensive play of this season for the Steelers, and it was symbolic of their run toward reviving a franchise that seemed stuck in muddy mediocrity.
They were 8-8 for two consecutive seasons and 3-3 in this one. Now they're 11-5. The league's best record was 12-4.
One game separated the Steelers, who lost to one opponent with two wins and another with four, from the teams with the most victories in football.
One thing is true about the NFL as it currently exits: The best team usually doesn't win the Super Bowl.
The team playing the best does.
There are teams with more talent that these Steelers.
There are teams with better health than these Steelers.
There are teams with first-round byes and home-field advantages and more impressive recent track records.
I'm not sure there is a better team. I'm absolutely sure there isn't one that has come as far.
Josh Harris taking handoffs. Brad Wing throwing passes. A former Jacksonville Jaguar (Blake) making memorable plays.
Oh, and Roethlisberger-to-Brown for a 63-yard touchdown that secured a sweep of the Bengals and final, firm control of the NFL's toughest division.
“It's really been something,” Rooney said.
It really, really has. Something tells me it's not going to end Saturday night.
Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/robrossi/7427123-74/steelers-team-teams#ixzz3NNj3bCLz
Follow us: @triblive on Twitter | triblive on Facebook