PITTSBURGH — Emmanuel Sanders had no idea that the Steelers still had a flicker of hope in the playoff chase.
He figured the NFL postseason was something he would be watching from his couch in a few weeks.
“I’ve said several times, it’s gonna suck being at home in the month of January,” Sanders said after Sunday’s 30-20 win over Cincinnati, “watching guys continue to play football in search of the Lombardi Trophy. That’s what we play for. That’s what we work hard for. Hopefully it’ll come next year.”
Mathematically, the Steelers have not been eliminated from playoff contention, although making the playoffs is a long shot to say the least.
When asked if he knew the Steelers weren’t eliminated, Sanders had a puzzled look on his face.
But this isn’t meant to be a criticism of Sanders for not knowing that.
If anything, it furthers the belief that the Steelers have not given up on the season, or on each other.
If Sanders thought the Steelers were eliminated, there are other guys in that locker room who thought the same thing.
We have heard the theory that professional athletes don’t really care much about winning; they’re just happy to collect a paycheck that you and I can only dream of, and they’re even happier if they do it all healthy and in one piece.
Surely, there are some cases of that, but that didn’t seem to be the case in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.
There was Sanders, the scapegoat three weeks ago in Baltimore after a dropped two-point conversion, shedding two tacklers and fighting to get a key first down with about 5ﾽ minutes left. He caught the third-down pass well short of the first-down marker, but he scratched and clawed his way and got the first down by six inches.
It allowed the Steelers to run three more plays and eat two more minutes off the clock.
“I never quit,” Sanders said.
He’s not the only one. If you learned anything from Sunday night’s win over the first-place Bengals, it’s that there’s no quit in the Steelers. The have said that all along, ever since the 0-4 start. They put their money where their mouths are Sunday night.
There was right tackle Marcus Gilbert, already beat up and battered, injuring his ankle when Le’Veon Bell ran into his back and was tackled into the back of Gilbert’s legs.
Kelvin Beachum seemed to suffer a similar injury in a third-quarter pileup.
Both tackles labored through painful nights. But they didn’t quit, and they were a huge part of the win. The Steelers ran for 106 yards against the fifth-ranked rushing defense in the NFL.
“It’s a team that’s not stopped fighting,” Gilbert said. “We play this game for a reason because we love the game of football, and every guy proved that today. We came out there with a sense of urgency, and every guy battled. A lot of the guys, especially on the line, refused to come out, refused to be the reason why we didn’t … win the game. We’ve just got to finish these last two games up.”
“I was going to finish that game no matter what,” Beachum said.
The Steelers won’t be pulling a Redskins move and benching their star players to protect them from injuries. Surely, the brave fans who decide to sit in the bitter cold at Heinz Field are thankful for that, for not having to watch Bruce Gradkowski for three hours.
There’s no quit in the Steelers, and if you’re a fan, that’s all you can ask for at this point.
It just makes one wonder, what could have been if these Steelers showed up all season?