CINCINNATI -- No one in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room proclaimed that they're back. No one talked about this 24-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals becoming the turning point that will lead Pittsburgh back to the playoffs. And no one should after that ragged performance.
The reality of the situation -- or the craziness of it in the AFC North -- is that the Steelers (3-3) will wake up 1.5 games back of the division-leading Baltimore Ravens (5-2).
Despite all of their injuries, penalties and sloppy play, the Steelers are back in the hunt and can salvage this season if they play like they did in the fourth quarter Sunday night. If they play like they did in the first half, the Steelers will be lucky to break even this season. Anyone who has watched the Steelers play this year knows it's that cut-and-dried.
Over the final 10 weeks, it's about finishing the season the way Pittsburgh finished off Cincinnati. For the final 15 minutes of the game, Pittsburgh pounded the Cincinnati Bengals' defense into submission with a resourceful running game and never gave the Cincinnati offense any hope of coming back. For a brief moment, the Steelers looked like the Steelers on the road.
"I think it was a testament to will," left guard Willie Colon said. "[Offensive line coach Sean] Kugler brought up Peyton Manning in his Monday night game and said, 'If you look at Peyton's eyes, it was the look of you refusing to lose.' I think I kept saying that all week. You've got to refuse to lose, and that's what we did."
What the Steelers refused to lose was a fourth-quarter lead. In all three road games this season, the Steelers had the lead in the fourth quarter and failed to hold onto it. On Sunday night, Pittsburgh ran for 87 yards in the fourth quarter (12 yards more than the team's per-game average this season) without three starters on the offensive line and their top two running backs. Third-string Jonathan Dwyer and rookie Chris Rainey averaged 9.2 yards per carry in the final quarter behind backups at center, right guard and right tackle.
This was far from a statement game. This was more like one step in the right direction. This was a day when the Steelers regained confidence while their division rival, the Ravens, lost some in a 30-point defeat in Houston.
Pittsburgh had blown leads in all three of their losses, which led the NFL. This time, the Steelers went ahead 44 seconds into the fourth quarter on an 11-yard run by Rainey and weren't ever really threatened after that. Pittsburgh controlled the clock in the fourth quarter (10:33 to 4:27 in time of possession) and never let the Bengals get past their own 39-yard line.
Still, the Steelers hedged when asked if this was their breakthrough moment.
"We can tell you in January, I guess," said tight end Heath Miller, who scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion. "We first have to do something we haven’t done this year, win two games in a row."
The Steelers know they have to play much better to be considered legitimate contenders again this year. Dropped passes, turnovers and penalties on special teams could have easily dropped the Steelers to 2-4 and pushed them into panic mode.
On a trick play, running back Baron Batch failed to catch a perfectly thrown pass from wide receiver Antonio Brown with no one between him and the end zone. And the NFL isn't going to be investigating wide receiver Mike Wallace for using Stickum on his hands after dropping four passes, including a deflected throw in the end zone.
"I’ve made a lot of plays for my team," said Wallace, who had eight catches for 52 yards. "You can’t be good every week. Sometimes you have an off weekend. It was one of those for me."
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone and fumbled at his own 10-yard line. Pittsburgh also hurt itself in field position by committing four holding calls on returns (three of them had the Steelers starting at their own 9, 11 and 13-yard lines).
Even though the Steelers have so many challenges with injuries, they make it tougher on themselves with carelessness.
"When you're highly penalized and you turn the ball over, you put yourself behind the eight ball," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "But the guys didn't blink. They didn't. It's a testament to them. We were able to settle down and get our jobs done."
If this does turn around the Steelers' season, they have Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to thank. The Bengals had a first down with 1:30 left in the first half and a 14-6 lead. But they went into halftime tied at 14.
How does that happen? Dalton, who has been picked off in every game this season, threw a pass off the back of right guard Kevin Zeitler's helmet and fell into the arms of Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers converted that into a 9-yard touchdown pass to Miller, who also caught the two-point conversion to tie the game.
That got the Steelers back into the game but they were the ones who finished it. Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor, who had struggled all season, limited the NFL's leading receiver A.J. Green to one catch for eight yards and broke up a third-down pass to Green in the fourth quarter.
From there, it was left to the Steelers' ground game, which was ranked next-to-last in the league. Holding a touchdown lead with 2:40 left, the Steelers handed the ball off to Dwyer on the four straight plays to close out the game. The last run was a 32-yarder, which officially broke the Bengals.
"I don't want to sit here and say that we had something to prove because we just wanted to win the game," Roethlisberger said. "Of course, there was a sense of urgency because it was a divisional game. All we had to do was win, which is what we did."
The Steelers are just as flawed and banged-up as the rest of the AFC. Many of their games will be close because of their inconsistency. How they finish this season will ultimately depend on how they finish games.