The math is tantalizing.
The schedule is favorable.
The middle of the AFC is a mess.
Suddenly, things are looking up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Consecutive wins over Buffalo and Detroit have Pittsburgh (4-6) in position to play meaningful football into December if not January.
“We feel like we have a good team, but when we mention those things, people say ‘Your record says you’re not,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “We’ve just got to continue to fight this thing out and see what happens. We have to keep it going.”
Cotchery allows his team’s margin for error is “nonexistent,” though the final six weeks hardly look intimidating.
Starting with Sunday’s game at Cleveland (4-6), the Steelers face just one team with a winning record the rest of the way. And even that Dec. 15 showdown with AFC North-leading Cincinnati is at Heinz Field.
The other five games include two against the Browns, a Thanksgiving night matchup at struggling Baltimore (4-6) and a visit by the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 8.
What was billed as the return of former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace could take a backseat to something considerably more substantial.
Miami and the New York Jets are tied for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot at 5-5. Pittsburgh already owns the tiebreaker over the Jets after picking up a victory on the road last month.
It’s not much hope to cling to, but it beats the alternative. The Steelers were reading the obituary on their season after a humbling 55-31 loss to New England dropped them to 2-6 at the midway point and 15th in the 16-team AFC.
Two promising weeks later, they’re 10th with plenty of time left.
The crossroads may have come in the fourth quarter against Detroit. The Lions had just botched a fake field goal attempt but pinned the Steelers at their own 3 early in the fourth quarter.
Facing third-and-9, Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 16-yard gain. The drive ended in a touchdown and Pittsburgh was on its way to its most significant victory of the season.
“I don’t know if it’s a turning point, but hopefully we can look back in 3-4 months and say it was,” tight end Heath Miller said.
This isn’t the first time this fall Pittsburgh appeared poised to break out of a rut. The Steelers beat the Jets and the Ravens after an 0-4 start and spark belief that better days were ahead.
Pittsburgh then went out and bumbled its way to a 21-18 loss to Oakland before Tom Brady picked the Steelers apart and sent the franchise into full-blown crisis mode.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau talked about going back to “page one” in the playbook after giving up 610 yards to the Patriots. He vowed to simplify things and his defense has responded with a pair of solid performances.
The Steelers overwhelmed Buffalo quarterback E.J. Manuel in a 23-10 romp and shut down the high-powered Lions after surviving a 27-point deluge in the second quarter.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford completed just 3 of 16 passes after halftime and wide receiver Calvin Johnson never got his hands on the ball in the second half as Pittsburgh rallied.
Perhaps just as encouraging as the results were the plays the Steelers were able to produce. Lawrence Timmons recovered a fumble and returned it 30 yards to set up a score.
Nose tackle Steve McLendon forced Lions holder Sam Martin to fumble during the fake field goal and safety Will Allen intercepted Stafford in the fourth quarter to put Roethlisberger in position for the game-clinching touchdown.
Those were the kind of plays Pittsburgh didn’t make for several weeks early in the season, something that weighed on them in the locker room.
“When you’re not getting them, you try to downplay it like it doesn’t matter,” safety Ryan Clark said. “But when you’re getting them you understand they help you win.”
A pattern that will have to continue if the Steelers want to avoid missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time this millennium.
“We’ve got to be mentally tough,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “We know it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
NOTES: Coach Mike Tomlin said LB LaMarr Woodley, DE Brett Keisel and G Ramon Foster will have a chance to play against the Browns. All three starters sat out the Lions game because of injury. ... The Steelers signed former Pitt running back Ray Graham to the practice squad on Tuesday. Graham rushed for 3,271 yards in four seasons with the Panthers from 2009-2012.
The math is tantalizing.
Cousins Sansalone, Craig lead Polar Bears past B-U: PHOTOS
They say you don’t mess with family. Buckhannon-Upshur found that one out the hard way.
Mascaro signs with FSU
Gabi Mascaro is staying in Fairmont.
After considering several out-of-state colleges, the Fairmont Senior soccer standout signed her National Letter of Intent Tuesday to continue her career at Fairmont State University, an upstart program which will play its first games in 2015.
HERTZEL COLUMN- WVU faithful again have a reason to root against Vick
It would be one final indignation, that’s what it would be if Michael Vick were to beat out Geno Smith and win the starting quarterback job with the New York Jets.
FURFARI COLUMN- West Liberty’s Crutchfield not interested in Division I
You would think Jim Crutchfield would be a great candidate for a head basketball coaching job at an NCAA Division I university.
Volquez outdueled; Pirates fall to Reds, 4-1
Edinson Volquez spent four years watching Johnny Cueto evolve into one of the National League’s best pitchers when the two were teammates in Cincinnati from 2008-11.
MLB suspends four from Pirates-Brewers brawl
Major League Baseball has suspended four players involved in last Sunday’s brawl between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers.
Slow start spoils Bees’ upset bid: PHOTOS
Fresh off a fairly successful trip to Myrtle Beach, the East Fairmont baseball team was looking to gain some respect in its own state by toppling No. 4 Bridgeport on the road. Instead, the Bees came home with an 8-3 loss after a slow start spoiled their upset bid.
Calhoun, FSU land two signees
Fairmont State coach Jerrod Calhoun is adding the finishing touches to this year’s signing class.
HERTZEL COLUMN- Luck open to WVU fans’ suggestions
West Virginia’s fans have spoken, perhaps not verbally but nonetheless have had their voices heard, over the past few years as attendance has fallen at the Mountaineers’ football and basketball games.
WVU athletic department to form Fan Experience Committee
The West Virginia University Department of Intercollegiate Athletics is forming a fan experience committee to discuss the needs of Mountaineer fans with the hopes of enhancing the fan experience at its events.
- More Sports Headlines
- Cousins Sansalone, Craig lead Polar Bears past B-U: PHOTOS