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Hanging on to Hope

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About three-quarters of the way through the season, the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves in a similar situation to their 2005 Super Bowl winning counterparts: 7-5 and needing to win out to make the playoffs.

It didn’t quite play out that way for the 2015 group.

Sitting at 6-5 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs—just a year after winning the AFC North—the Steelers rattled off three consecutive wins, including two against the first place Bengals and Broncos, to overtake the New York Jets for the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoffs.

The formula heading into the final two weeks of the season was simple: win and get in. The hand couldn’t have favored the Steelers any better as their final two opponents, Baltimore and Cleveland, had a combined eight wins on the year. Despite facing Baltimore’s fourth quarterback of the season, Ryan Mallett, the Ravens handed the Steelers a stunning 20-17 loss, bumping Pittsburgh out of the sixth seed and piutting them in danger of missing the postseason for the third time in four seasons.

The loss altered the Steelers playoff formula and meant that a win over the Browns in the final week would not be enough – help was needed in the form of a Bills win over the Jets. That is the exact scenario that played out for the Steelers.

It didn’t start out pretty—an early turnover here and a dropped interception there—but the Steelers remained ahead of the Browns throughout the entire game and the defense kept Cleveland out of the end zone.

Although the win against the Browns and the Bills’ win over the Jets were ultimately what put the Steelers in the postseason, the Roethlisberger-led offense has been the No. 1 reason for Pittsburgh’s return to the playoffs. The Steelers went 4-1 over their final five games, averaging 32 points per game. Two of those games were against the NFL’s top passing defenses in Denver and Cincinnati.

Roethlisberger, who only started and finished nine games this season, tossed 16 interceptions – the second-highest total of his 12 year career. Yet despite throwing six interceptions over his final three games, Roethlisberger’s ability to carry the team when it needed him most seemed to mirror the Steelers rocky 2015 campaign.

Pittsburgh faced a lot of adversity during the season, some self-inflicted in form of early season drug-related suspensions of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, whose regular season appearances were delayed until Week 3 and Week 5, respectively.

Mike Tomlin didn’t bat an eye, instead inserting veterans DeAngelo Williams and Darius Heyward-Bay into the line-up in their place.

When Maurkice Pouncey was injured in the preseason, and later ruled out for the entire season, there was more concern. When Roethlisberger suffered an MCL sprain in a Week 3 win against St. Louis, the murmurs of “the season is over” began in full. And when left tackle Kelvin Beachum and Bell were lost for the season, the murmurs became a full-fledged roar.

But Tomlin’s “next man up” mantra, tested again and again, played out in successful fashion again and again. If it wasn’t Mike Vick or Landry Jones playing the hero, it was Williams and offensive linemen Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva stepping up and becoming consistent contributors on offense.

Perhaps the team’s biggest improvement occurred on defense, as the 16-game season tested an already shaky secondary. Week-after-week it seemed as if Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler were forced to draw up different combinations in the defensive backfield. One week it would work, and the next week Tomlin and Butler were forced to go back to the drawing board. Tomlin didn’t offer excuses during his weekly press conferences, simply demanding better play. Safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback William Gay were the rocks in an otherwise shaky group and were able to keep the unit afloat.

While the make-up of the team is vastly different from the 2005 group that won the organization’s sixth Lombardi trophy, the 2015 Steelers’ road to the postseason is eerily similar to that Bill Cowher-coached '05 squad. Even their first-round opponent—the Cincinnati Bengals—is the same. The two teams have met only once in the postseason: the Steelers 31-17 Wild Card victory on Jan. 8, 2006. It was Pittsburgh’s first stop en route to Detroit and its Super Bowl XL win.Steelers Mike Tomlin

Four players remain from that team a decade ago: Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, linebacker James Harrison and long-snapper Greg Warren.

That season sparked a run of three AFC Championships over the next six years. Only time will tell if the 2015 team is at the beginning of another run of success, but the parallels are there: a group that battled through peaks and valleys during the regular season, seldom looking like a team with enough balance to make a deep postseason run. But somehow, some way, that 2005 team found a way to make just enough plays to win just enough games. The 2015 team has done the same, at least through its first 16 games.

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