The playoffs are practically off the table for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So, apparently, is planning ahead to 2014.
Coach Mike Tomlin stressed Tuesday his team is focused on beating AFC North leader Cincinnati on Sunday night, not treating the final three weeks of the season as an extended job interview.
The last time Tomlin checked, he is paid to win games not play out the string.
“I don’t expect the mentality to change,” Tomlin said. “I know mine won’t, and I know the presentation of material or the approach to preparation, or even our intentions in terms of how we’re going to go about victory are not going to change.”
The Steelers (5-8) saw any real postseason hopes vanish when Antonio Brown’s left foot stepped out of bounds at the Miami 12 on the final play of a 34-28 loss to the Dolphins.
All it really did, however, was put the finishing touches on a disappointing fall that began when Pittsburgh dropped its first four games.
After spending two months trying to climb out of that massive hole, Tomin acknowledged his team’s winless September was “catastrophic.”
“When you start 0-4, you understand the ramifications of that,” Tomlin said.
The Steelers’ bid to become the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs after such a miserable opening four weeks is now all but gone.
That doesn’t mean Tomlin is necessarily displeased with what he’s seen. The team that couldn’t run the ball and couldn’t take it away three months ago has found a way to do a little bit of both recently.
Troy Polamalu picked up his fifth career touchdown with a 19-yard interception return for a score and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell is becoming the dynamic playmaker the Steelers envisioned when they took him in the second round of the draft.
“Obviously, we haven’t been 9-0 since that (start) but I do think that we have answered some of those questions and have improved in some of those areas,” Tomlin said.
Just not enough to get back to .500.
“It is a very small margin of error when you lose the first four games,” safety Ryan Clark said. “For us, you can’t split quarters of the season. If you lose four games, somewhere in there you need a four-game winning streak to even it out.”
It hasn’t happened.
Now Pittsburgh needs to win out if it wants to avoid its first losing season since 2003.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pledged there would be “no quit” in the Steelers but they find themselves at a crossroads.
Few players in the locker room have endured a December with nothing at stake.
Pittsburgh played a meaningless finale against Cleveland to end 2012. The Steelers drummed the Browns to avoid a losing season.
They need to beat the Bengals and Green Bay over the next two weeks to even make that a possibility this time around.
“It’s just been that season you know?” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “We don’t want it to be like that, but that’s how it is man. It’s very frustrating, very frustrating.”
The one thing the season isn’t, though, is over. It’s a message Tomlin doesn’t think he’ll have to repeat throughout the week.
The coach whose mantra is “the standard is the standard” knows his players are aware that it doesn’t change even if the circumstances do.
“We are putting together a plan that is geared toward defeating the Cincinnati Bengals,” he said.
Something the Steelers failed to do in a 20-10 loss on the road in September. The defeat dropped Pittsburgh to 0-2.
The Steelers insisted it wasn’t time to panic. Two more losses followed and despite improved play over the past nine weeks, Pittsburgh is four games back in the division for the rematch.
Pittsburgh for once enters the final stretch relatively healthy. Defensive end Brett Keisel, who has missed three of the past four games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, worked out on Monday and could return. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who sat out last week with a knee injury, could also return.
Whoever is on the field, they will be the players Tomlin believes gives the team the best chance to win now. He will not play rookies or backups just to give them experience. That’s now how the Steelers do things.
“I am always in continual evaluation of the talent,” he said. “And I also put preparing and winning this week at a premium.”
The playoffs are practically off the table for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pirates power past Brewers
Andrew McCutchen hit his first homer of the season and drove in three runs, Pedro Alvarez had a three-run shot and pinch-hitter Josh Harrison broke a tie with a long ball in the seventh inning as the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Milwaukee Brewers their first road loss, 11-2 on Thursday night.
Harrison’s two-run drive down the left field line off Rob Wooten (0-1) was the second of his career as a pinch hitter.
Jackets preparing for Game 2
The Columbus Blue Jackets don’t feel they’re doomed after blowing a two-goal lead in a Game 1 loss of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s not about missed chances, or feeling sorry about it,” goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said at Thursday’s optional workout, 13 hours after falling 4-3 in Pittsburgh.
Jennerstown Speedway gearing for May open
Jennerstown Speedway released a very ambitious schedule on its website and continues to prepare for its 2014 reopening.
The track is set to hold a practice day for drivers as well as an open house and media day on April 26.
Dominant Cueto drops Pirates in matinee
That playoff loss in Pittsburgh last year? Johnny Cueto never thought about it much. So getting a chance to shut out the Pirates in a rematch wasn’t any more special.
Penguins rally to wear out Jackets
Brandon Sutter scored on a wrist shot from the left circle 8:18 into the third period, helping the Pittsburgh Penguins rally for a 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Wednesday night.
Beau Bennett and Matt Niskanen scored power-play goals 45 seconds apart in the second period, erasing Pittsburgh’s two-goal deficit.
Series serves as reunion for former Chiefs personnel
Not so long ago, Bob McElligott, like most Western Pennsylvania hockey fans, would savor a long Pittsburgh Penguins playoff run.
The Somerset native followed the Pens’ Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992.
Malkin nearing return
The Columbus Blue Jackets are the closest NHL team to the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least geographically. The two franchises are separated by 185 miles of highway.
Reds swing way past Pirates
Mike Leake doubled and hit a two-run homer Tuesday night, ending Gerrit Cole's winning streak and leading the Cincinnati Reds to a 7-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates that completed two days full of homers and delays.
First, the NL Central rivals completed a game that was suspended in the sixth inning because of rain the previous night.
Pirates edge out Reds in suspended game
After all those home runs and an overnight delay, it was settled by a single.
Andrew McCutchen doubled and came around on Russell Martin’s single in the seventh inning on Tuesday, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates an 8-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the completion of a game that spanned two days and 10 home runs.
Pressure on Penguins to capture Cup
The statistics are gaudy.
And if the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t find a way to extend their season into the final days of spring, ultimately forgettable.
The same team that led the NHL in man games lost due to injury (more than 500) also earned 109 points, led the Metropolitan Division from mid-October on and received another peerless effort from star Sidney Crosby, who topped the league with 104 points and is a near lock for the second MVP award of his career.
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