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Keeping the Faith: Staying in Playoff Contention Helpful for Young Steelers

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Steelers QB Kenny Pickett

By beating the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers once again dramatically increased their odds of making the 2022 NFL Playoffs, this time doubling their chances.

The Steelers tripled their playoff odds, according to Five Thirty Eight, after beating the Indianapolis Colts in Week 12. In total, they’ve gone from 1% to 3% to 6%. Put another way, the Steelers are still long shots to make it to the NFL postseason. 

But like Mary Swanson to Lloyd Christmas in “Dumb and Dumber,” yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance.

The Steelers have certainly opened the door to realistic conversations about the postseason. They’re about to play the Baltimore Ravens, who they’ve beaten four straight times. They’re at home and the Ravens will likely be without Lamar Jackson. 

After that comes a trip to the Carolina Panthers, which just fired Baker Mayfield after already firing their coach, and is this a good time to mention that owner David Tepper is under criminal investigation? Things are about as bad in Charlotte as they are anywhere in the NFL.

It’s certainly not crazy to be thinking about the possibility of the Steelers getting back to 7-7 with three games left to play. It is a little bit crazy for the Steelers themselves to be thinking about it, though.

“It’s not a realistic discussion unless we handle business this week,” head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “It’s not like we don’t acknowledge the elephant in the room that there’s something that’s coming at the end of this thing and we want positioned for it. So we know what this week means relative to it.”

That’s OK. The Steelers don’t have to talk about the playoffs to know they’re there, and to know that they still have a chance to compete in the postseason. There is a big difference between having a lot of work to do and focusing singularly on the next step and knowing that you’re already eliminated.

If all the Steelers are able to accomplish with this late-season turnaround is staving off their eventual elimination, that’s OK, too.

“It’s good for our morale,” said second-year running back Najee Harris. “Us stacking two wins in a row, when before we were just trying to get a win, I think that changes a lot. That’s a big jump.”

But more than that, it keeps the carrot of success dangling ahead. For a young player, the air being let out of the season can be a big negative. Bad habits can sneak into a player’s game. It’s easier to lose focus. The competitive environment is just not the same when you know you’re not playing for anything.

Don’t take my word for it. I talked to Minkah Fitzpatrick and Myles Jack, two veteran Steelers that have seen what a losing season can do to player development. Fitzpatrick worked through one losing season in Miami before requesting a trade in 2019. This is Jack’s first season outside of Jacksonville, where the Jaguars made the playoffs once in his first six seasons.

“It keeps you hopeful,” Fitzpatrick said. “You keep hoping for the future. We’ve just got to keep developing these guys.”

“It’s a learning experience,” Jack said. “The first half of the season, we didn’t really handle business as we should. November and December are those big months where, if you can win out those games, people can really see what kind of team you’ve got and make a run into the playoffs. … 

“This is great for guys to experience the highs and lows of the season and even to get to come back after losing so much. I think we’re about to go on a little run.”

The Steelers are winning, and not only are they winning, they are winning because of the efforts of their younger players, and that makes the additional development time all that much more valuable.

“It’s the chicken or the egg,” Tomlin said. “They’re growing and growing in the right ways because of the victories; their play is producing the victories.

“You grow in understanding individually and collectively in what you’re capable of when you have success. It’s a setback and there’s more hurdles when you don’t. It’s good not only in the outcome of that game, but just to build as we move forward and understanding that we are capable and how it has to look.”

The young Steelers are learning how to win right in front of our eyes, and as long as they have that prize at the end of the season available to them, this late-season run will be worth it, even in the face of long playoff odds.

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