PITTSBURGH — With three games to go, the finish line is in sight for the 2021 NFL season.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that finish line is coming into focus with their competition still ahead of them, meaning its time for a big kick to the finish line if the team is going to make it back to the postseason.
“You just gotta get in,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “You gotta peak at the right time.”
This version of the Steelers has shown a resiliency that the team hopes can be a positive quality in the end stage of the season. They’ve fallen behind in a number of games. They’ve played more tight games than they wanted to do. But the hope is the path they’ve taken to this point in the race has built up their resolve as individuals to perform the best when it matters the most.
“We’re winning the close games,” Roethlisberger said. “We’re coming back. We’re fighting. We know that there’s a little bit of life and we’ll keep fighting one week at a time.”
Roethlisberger has been on a few Steelers teams that have closed hard down the stretch. They won 10 of their last 11 in 2017, seven in a row to close the season in 2016, and four of five to finish 2015.
He was also part of some teams that didn’t get it done, like the 2018 squad that lost four of six to miss the playoffs by a half game and last year’s team that turned an unbeaten start into losing three of four, stumbling into a postseason defeat against Cleveland.
What’s the difference?
“You had good leadership and guys that know what it takes to finish,” he said. “Hopefully we have that this year.”
The good news for the Steelers is that very few of the teams that are ahead of them should feel very secure with their standing, either. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the division lead just a half-game ahead of Pittsburgh. The Steelers are also just a half-game behind the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers and Buffalo Bills for an AFC Wild Card berth.
“The whole AFC feels like it’s a jumbled mess at times,” Roethlisberger said. “I think our division could be argued as one of the toughest in the NFL. We’re constantly beating each other up and our completion that we’re playing this year, obviously, we had the No. 1 schedule. I’m not sure what the other guys had, but it’s not easy out there.”
For that reason, head coach Mike Tomlin has emphasized that it’s not good enough for the Steelers to perform well compared to their own expectations over the last three weeks. They must perform better than the competition, both the teams they’re facing on the field, and the ones they’re chasing in the standings, to make a difference.
“That’s why I always talk about dealing with circumstances relatively well, meaning compared to those that we’re competing against,” Tomlin said. “That’s a significant component of it. How well we deal with the circumstances, what will be enough, I don’t know, but we’d better do more than those we’re competing against.”