PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are good again. For a week anyway.
Yet if one of the NFL's most enigmatic teams has learned anything over the last three months, it's that stringing success from one Sunday to the next remains tricky. This week's season-salvaging triumph is next week's gut-punch loss. Thirteen weeks into an equally parts promising and puzzling season, Pittsburgh finally insists it's ready to stop running in place.
"I feel like this time of the year, you're not allowed to have those slip-ups anymore," linebacker Arthur Moats said. "If we want to be a team like we're trying to be, we have to be successful this week."
Good luck with that. A trip to Atlanta is the only thing between the Steelers (8-5) and a two-game homestand against Kansas City and the Bengals that will determine whether they make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Three wins and Pittsburgh captures the AFC North. Two and a return to January football is likely. Anything less — and the Steelers will almost certainly be favored in all three games — and another long offseason awaits.
The math is simple. Breaking a pattern in which the Steelers have mixed euphoric wins against contenders to confounding losses to also-rans is not.
Maybe that's why dozens of players showed up at the team facility on Monday even though coach Mike Tomlin gave them the day off.
"The actions on your off days speak a lot about you," Moats said.
Moats spent the first four seasons of his career in Buffalo, admitting "during my first two or three years there, going into the bye week, you pretty much knew it was over."
Not this time. As uneven as Pittsburgh has been this fall, when the Steelers are on they are every bit as explosive as New England or Denver. The problem is what happens when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and stars Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are off.
Pittsburgh is on pace to set a club record for points in a season, needing to average just 19 points over the final three weeks to eclipse the 416 scored by the 1979 team that won the franchise's fourth Super Bowl in season years. That club went 12-4 and won eight games by at least 11 points. The current group only has three blowouts under its belt, and while the romp over the Bengals qualifies, the Steelers still entered the fourth quarter trailing before scoring four times in less than 10 minutes.
"I don't care about the style points," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're just trying to do what is necessary to get out of these stadiums with wins."
Of course, Tomlin would like to do it with some consistency. And while the Chiefs and Bengals will almost certainly have Pittsburgh's attention on the final two weekends of the season, who knows what awaits in Atlanta. The Falcons are under .500 but in first place in the NFC South. The last time the Steelers faced a team like that, New Orleans blew them off the field.
It's why Moats, at best, is cautiously optimistic. He's not the only player trying to make the postseason for the first time in his career. It can be a painful learning process. Truth is, the losses to Tampa Bay, the New York Jets and New Orleans didn't seem as crushing in the moment. Any similar missteps here on out and the repercussions will extend into a murky future.
"If you lose a game now, you're talking about losing the division, missing the playoffs," Moats said.
He welcomes the pressure while allowing the defense needs to improve. Moats' fourth-quarter fumble recovery kickstarted Pittsburgh's late surge, one that was required after the Bengals spent three quarters popping one big play after the next. When it mattered, however, the Steelers shut the door.
The win allowed Moats to check his phone in the giddy aftermath to see how the rest of the AFC contenders fared. It beats the alternative, though the veterans in the locker room know it's best to focus on their own games. Win games and what everyone else does hardly matters.
"Every week is kind of a playoff week for us," Roethlisberger said. "We're going to give it everything we have every week. And it doesn't get any easier moving forward."
Something the Steelers know only too well.
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