By Will Graves
December 22, 2015
Dec 20, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a pass against the Denver Broncos during the second half at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Mike Tomlin is well aware of the math.
And he's pretty sure his players are too.
Just don't expect the Pittsburgh Steelers coach to start talking about what needs to happen for his team to clinch a playoff spot this weekend. Last Tomlin checked, that wasn't part of his job description.
''By all means have it, discuss (the scenarios),'' Tomlin said Tuesday. ''But nothing changes our mentality in terms of where we are and what we need to be focused on.''
A win in Baltimore against the Ravens and a loss by the New York Jets to New England would assure Pittsburgh (9-5) a spot in the postseason for the second straight year and the sixth time in Tomlin's nine seasons on the sideline.
Tomlin's success tends to follow a familiar pattern: the Steelers have issues coming out of the gate only to get it together when the temperatures dip and the pressure mounts.
Pittsburgh is 28-12 in regular-season games played Dec. 1 or later under Tomlin. The Steelers have won 10 straight games in December, tied with Carolina for the league's longest active streak.
The arrow, as Tomlin likes to say, is pointing up. Even if he doesn't want to get into details. Pressed on how his team has improved since a 23-20 overtime home loss to Baltimore on Oct. 1 and he gives the equivalent of a verbal shoulder shrug.
''It's just the natural maturation process of a group, individually and collectively over the course of the season,'' Tomlin said. ''That was Week 4. We're now in the thick of this thing.''
And appear to be a very real threat in a muddled AFC. Denver, Cincinnati, Houston and Indianapolis have quarterback issues. Kansas City is the hottest team in the league not named Carolina, though its current eight-game run includes a victory over the Roethlisberger-less Steelers on Oct. 25.
The Patriots are the Patriots, but have taken to signing 32-year-old running backs to have someone to line up next to Tom Brady.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, just completed a stretch that looked daunting on paper in August, but not so much on the field in late fall.
The Steelers beat Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Denver - all division leaders at the time - by an average of 19 points. Facing backup quarterbacks in all three games helped.
Then again, Matt Hasselbeck, AJ McCarron andBrock Osweiler had nothing to do with how the defenses of their respective teams played.
Pittsburgh ripped through the Colts, kept the Bengals off balance and hurt the ''No Fly Zone'' for 380 yards passing while putting together the largest home rally in 18 years against the Broncos.
Pittsburgh has topped 30 points in six consecutive games for the first time in the franchise's 82-year history. The Steelers have scored in 21 consecutive quarters and appear to be getting better as the weeks pass.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is averaging 337 yards a game and for as unstoppable as wide receiver Antonio Brown appears at the moment, the scary part might be that he's getting plenty of help from Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant.
The trio combined for 32 receptions for 338 yards versus Denver. While the Broncos prevented the Steelers from getting deep - no catch went longer than 23 yards - when Denver tried to muscle up Brown and company, they responded by winning plenty of 50/50 balls.
Brown tipped the ball to himself on one reception, Wheaton extended a drive with an acrobatic grab over the middle and Bryant outfought Aqib Talib and shrugged loose of the Pro Bowler to help the Steelers flip the field after getting pinned deep in their own territory.
''Obviously, Antonio gets a lot of attention and rightfully so, but when called upon, we expect those guys to deliver plays for us,'' Tomlin said. ''And some of them are going to be sticky.''
All of which has made Pittsburgh a trendy pick for a deep playoff run. That requires the Steelers get there first, something Tomlin insists is not a given even with the Ravens and woeful Cleveland left on the schedule. Pittsburgh is just 3-9 in its past 12 trips to Baltimore.
That should give Tomlin plenty of fodder as he guards his team against get caught up in its own hype.
''We are going to continue to control what we can control (and) that's how we play,'' Tomlin said. ''We are excited about that. It's a division game. It's a division road game. We respect all of those elements of the game regardless of scenarios or circumstances.''
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