AFC North Champion Steelers Keep Finding a Way

They've locked up a fourth straight playoff trip

By the middle of the second quarter, the adrenaline had faded.

By the start of the fourth, the emotionally drained Pittsburgh Steelers defense appeared to be teetering on the edge of complete collapse.

The group that spent the week trying to come to grips with linebacker Ryan Shazier's life-altering spinal injury and vowed to play for their fallen teammate as he recovered from surgery in a nearby hospital was instead getting pushed around by the Baltimore Ravens.

At one point defensive end Cam Heyward tried to give a sideline pep talk he stressed wasn't PG-rated.

Didn't work.

At another, coach Mike Tomlin tried to do the same. That didn't work either. During one stretch, Heyward said the Steelers were "horrendous."

And in the end, it didn't matter for a group that's found a way of turning adversity — be it self-inflicted or otherwise — into something more meaningful: a division title.

When two stops were required to finish off a stunning rally, two stops is exactly what a defense trying to find a new identity without one of its leaders got.

The result? A giddy and cathartic 39-38 victory and a middle-of-the-night trip to visit Shazier and drop off his AFC North champions swag.

"We talk about being a close group from the time we start offseason workouts," linebacker Arthur Moats said.

"We hang out off the field. When you know that man next to you personally, know how far he is willing to go, you're willing to go there too. That's what gets us out of these games like that. Something you can't put a statistic on."

Here's something the Steelers (11-2) can put a statistic on: they've locked up a fourth straight playoff trip, their third division crown in four years and a long-anticipated showdown with longtime nemesis New England next Sunday that will likely determine home-field advantage in January.

Oh, and they've won eight straight games during a season in which wide receiver Antonio Brown KO'd a water cooler, the team "botched" an attempt to sidestep the controversy surrounding national anthem protests, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger facetiously questioned his own ability and wide receiver Martavis Bryant tried to pout his way onto the trading block.

The Steelers absorbed those issues and moved on. This last week, however, was different.

As Shazier began what looks to be a long, slow and uncertain recovery after injuring his back while trying to make a tackle last Monday in Cincinnati, his teammates tried to reconcile their grief with the knowledge their job requires them to move forward without him, at least in body if not in spirit.

"That's the crazy part about the NFL, things constantly change and you've got to keep rolling," said linebacker Vince Williams, one of Shazier's closest friends on the team.

"So you've got to find a way to roll with the punches even though it may be a haymaker, got to find a way to recover."

Pittsburgh found a way when it absolutely had to.

After Le'Veon Bell's third touchdown pulled the Steelers within 38-36 with 3:29 left, the defense forced Baltimore into a three-and-out. Roethlisberger and Brown led a last-gasp drive to set up Chris Boswell's 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds left.

Still, the Ravens had one more shot. Then the defense that spent much of the game futilely chasing Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco finally caught him.

Rookie linebacker T.J. Watt raced around Ravens right tackle Austin Howard and stripped Flacco of the ball. The ball rolled out of bounds and Baltimore couldn't get off another snap. Then, and only then, could the Steelers truly relax.

"Maybe at the end, you think about all that (Ryan's) put into this over the years, he's always the first in and last out," Watt said.

"He's the heart and soul of this defense so I think we did a really good job of blocking all that out throughout the whole week and the whole game. Obviously it's really tough. But I don't think it really hit us until after the game."

Shazier communicated via FaceTime with his teammates from a joyous locker room after they delivered the division title he challenged them to claim.

It was a raucous celebration, the first of what they hope are several over the next two months. Earning a seventh Lombardi Trophy will be considerably more difficult without Shazier. The Steelers know they have no choice. And they're OK with it.

"We showed we can win in all types of ways, whether it's defense, offense, special teams," Heyward said. "Guys just stepping up in key moments. I believe in this team. Nothing against anybody else, I'd bet on us every time."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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