Steelers trying to follow 1989 route to playoffs
By ALAN ROBINSON, AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP)—Back in 1989, a dreadful loss to the Cleveland Browns appeared to ruin the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season. Owner Dan Rooney said the playoffs were out. With 11 rookies, the Steelers didn’t seem to have enough experience to overcome a 4-6 start.

Their only chance to sneak into the playoffs was to win their final three games and hope that virtually every other AFC playoff contender folded. Remarkably, all of that happened, and the Steelers not only made it to the postseason, they upset Houston and nearly beat Denver.

Twenty years later, these Steelers (7-7) need a nearly identical formula—a three-game winning streak and plenty of losing by the other AFC contenders—to somehow find their way back to the playoffs.

At least they have a chance, something they didn’t appear to own after terrible losses to Oakland and Cleveland appeared to have sunk their season.

The Super Bowl champions flashed their first signs of life in weeks on Sunday, rallying to beat the Packers 37-36 despite giving up 22 points and two leads to Green Bay during the fourth quarter. Their defense was awful again in the final quarter, yet the Steelers rode quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s 503-yard performance—the 10th-best passing day in NFL history—to an improbable victory.

Was it merely a one-day flashback to a year ago, when the Steelers excelled in winning close games, or did they turn around a season that appeared to be lost?

“It’s amazing how one play can change everything,” Roethlisberger said, referring to his decisive 19-yard touchdown pass to rookie Mike Wallace(notes) on the game’s final play.

With eight teams still contending for the AFC’s two wild-card spots and two games remaining for each, there are far too many variables for the Steelers to figure out exactly what it takes for them to recover from a five-game losing streak and reach the playoffs.

Because of their 1-4 division and 4-6 conference records, the Steelers not only trail current wild-card leaders Denver (8-6) and Baltimore (8-6), they’re also behind three of the other five teams that are 7-7: Jacksonville, Miami and the New York Jets, although they play the Dolphins on Jan. 3.

Because of tiebreakers, the Steelers could beat the Ravens at home on Sunday and Miami, for example, yet still finish behind Baltimore in the wild-card standings as long as the Ravens end their season by winning at Oakland.

But if the Steelers’ chances of making the playoffs seem improbable, they also were in 1989.

Then, the Steelers’ only chance was to beat Tampa Bay and hope that at least four teams from a group of five (Miami, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati and the Raiders) all lost. The Steelers won and four teams lost and, somehow, Pittsburgh was in.

Back then, quarterback Bubby Brister rallied the Steelers following a 51-0 loss to Cleveland in Three Rivers Stadium, predicting they would make the playoffs. He was proven right when they shook off a 4-6 start by winning five of their last six.

Now, Roethlisberger is trying to pull a Brister-like magic act by attempting to bring the Steelers back from a 13-6 loss at Cleveland, which was 1-11 at the time.

“I’m upbeat and (I) tell those guys it’s still OK,” Roethlisberger said. “I think the leadership we have on this team all the way around, we don’t quit. That is kind of a Pittsburgh mentality, we don’t quit no matter what.”

Thinking that way worked in 1989. The Steelers will find out now if it works in 2009.

Like then, the Steelers can be terrible one week and exceptional the next. They’ve beaten five of their seven opponents that are .500 or better but only two of six opponents with losing records.

“I have no idea,” Roethlisberger said of the Steelers’ unpredictability. “It’s a crazy league.”