PITTSBURGH — 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 it if 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.
It’s 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 not 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.”