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Pittsburgh Steelers will head to playoffs on the upswing

By The Sports Xchange

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) steps back to pass in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on December 25, 2016. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs off the field all smiles following the 31-27 win against the Baltimore Ravens The Pittsburgh Steelers win clinches the AFC North for the Steelers. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
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Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) second effort allows him to score the game winning touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on December 25, 2016. The 31-27 win over the Ravens clinches the AFC North for the Steelers. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are AFC North champions for the second time in three seasons, and even though the Steelers have to play on wild-card weekend, their victory over the Baltimore Ravens Sunday will give the Steelers a chance to rest some of their players in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns.
With their 31-27 win over the Ravens the Steelers are locked into the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. They will host either the Miami Dolphins or the Kansas City Chiefs Jan. 7 or 8 at Heinz Field.
After the Steelers lost to Dallas Nov. 13 they were 4-5 and their chances of making the playoffs were slim. But they won six consecutive games to give Mike Tomlin his fifth division title in 10 seasons as head coach.
"There's going to be adversity over the course of the journey," Tomlin said. "We know that. We prepare for that. That's why we just continually work, regardless of outcome of games. We have to be a team that's continually on the rise. Those are the things we talk about. Because we know we're going to end up in December stadiums. Hopefully, if we stay steadfast to that approach, then the ball is going to be significant."
The way the Steelers earned the AFC North championship could be significant, too. They scored 21 points in the final 12 minutes.
It's the type of comeback that can build the confidence necessary to advance in the playoffs.
"It's pretty special the way we won it," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Especially after feeling the way I felt at a certain point in that game and feeling like you let guys down and you blew it. So to come back and win it is pretty special."
Roethlisberger threw two interceptions in the first three quarters, the second of which gave the Ravens the ball at the Steelers' 11-yard line late in the third quarter. But the Steelers' defense held the Ravens to a field goal and kept the deficit to 10 points early in the fourth quarter.
"I think today showed some resolve," Roethlisberger said. "I think we showed some fight, no quit. When you throw that second pick and they are in the end zone already, you know you never heard anything from the defense. You never saw them get down. You never saw them complain about the offense. We just stick together. Same thing when they scored late. You never saw the offense point fingers at each other. This is a total team win and even the special teams. It was just awesome."
--It was the first NFL game for rookies Demarcus Ayers and Johnny Maxey, and each player had a role in the outcome of the game.
Ayers, a seventh-round draft choice, drew a 35-yard pass interference penalty on Baltimore to set up one of the fourth-quarter touchdowns and caught a pass on the game-winning drive. He played because Sammie Coates missed the game with a hamstring injury.
Undrafted free-agent defensive lineman Johnny Maxey was signed to the 53-man roster Saturday after spending the first 14 weeks of the season on the practice squad. He ended up playing a lot because Ricardo Mathews could not finish the game due to an ankle injury.
"All of the men are to be congratulated, but we had some guys who hadn't played NFL football and tonight was their first game," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Guys like Demarcus Ayers and Maxey on the defensive line due to unavailability of the others, due to injury. I tip my cap to those guys. It's tough enough playing your first NFL game, but to step into an environment like that and be positive contributors, and both of those guys were, and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that."
Ben Roethlisberger said he had no second thoughts about targeting Ayers in the fourth quarter.
"I was talking to someone in the locker room about his play," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not looking and saying, 'OK, that's D.A. Do I throw this, do I not?' I have full faith, belief and trust that whoever it is, he is going to make the play. It's almost like you just see a jersey. And so you throw it to him and he went up and made a great play (got a penalty called on the defense). I probably could have given him a better ball and he could have run with it. So, guys like that, their hard work pays off. He goes everyday as the show team and busts his butt and gets hit and just doesn't stop, so it's neat to see that pay off for a guy like that."
Maxey was at a loss for words in describing his first NFL game.
"For me to be out there in a game of this magnitude it was really exciting," he said. "It all rained down on me when we won. It was crazy. I don't have any words right now. I'm just glad we came out with a win."
--The Steelers were one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL at the season's midway point. After Le'Veon Bell was held to 32 yards on 14 carries in an early November game in Baltimore the Steelers had the league's 25th-ranked rushing attack.
But after Bell averaged 127 yards rushing per game over the past seven games the Steelers own the league's 11th-ranked rushing attack heading into the regular-season finale against the Browns.
Bell has rushed for 100 yards or more five times in those seven games and the Steelers are riding a six-game winning streak as a result. Bell said the reason for the late-season turnaround is a better sense of rhythm with the offensive line.
"It's just detail," Bell said. "It wasn't all them. We weren't on the same page. There were some times there was a crease there, but I wasn't trusting it to be there. As a collective group, the offensive line, the fullbacks, tight ends, we all got on the same page week by week. I think we'll be better next week. Those guys have done a great job all year. I'm ecstatic with the offensive line I got."
Left guard Ramon Foster said the Steelers found their identity in late November when they started running the ball with more frequency, and that's been the biggest reason for the success.
"Our identity has to be us dominating," Foster said. "This time of the year we have to do it. The money has been paid to everyone on the offensive line. We have to deliver, point blank, period."

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