The message from Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin or his staff doesn’t change when the calendar flips to December.
The way it’s received by Tomlin’s players? That’s another matter.
“I think it might resonate a little bit more when you know what the picture is and the goal is,” tackle Max Starks said. “Game one obviously you don’t think ‘How are we going to do in our division? Where are we seeded right now?’ You’re 0-0. But by December you know where you’re seeded. You know what’s at stake.”
And the stakes remain high even if the Steelers (7-5) spent the first three-quarters of the season simply trying to survive. Heading into Sunday’s game against crumbling San Diego (4-8), Pittsburgh remains in the thick of the AFC playoff chase despite spending long stretches without stars Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison.
Roethlisberger, however, figures to be fully recovered from a sprained right shoulder and dislocated rib that sidelined him the last three weeks. The two-time Super Bowl winner practiced without issue both Wednesday and Thursday, and the Steelers are optimistic it won’t take long for their MVP to return to form.
“When he’s in there, it just opens everything up for us,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “You look at where we were at before he got hurt, and we were really starting to get it.”
The Steelers briefly wobbled with Roethlisberger watching from the sidelines in a gray sweat suit, losing consecutive games for the first time in three years. Backs against the wall a week ago in Baltimore, Pittsburgh responded with an emotional 23-20 comeback victory over the Ravens behind backup Charlie Batch.
Maybe the fact the game was played Dec. 2 is no coincidence. The Steelers have been among the best closers in the league over the last three seasons, going 11-2 in regular-season games played after Nov. 30 since 2010.
“It’s just like running a marathon,” Wallace said. “Everybody stays in a pack then at the end you’ve got to separate yourselves. So hopefully we can do that and separate ourselves as one of the best teams in the league.”
It’s something the Chargers hoped to be doing this winter too. Instead San Diego heads to a city where it has never won during the regular season (0-14) already out of the AFC West race and needing several miracles to get back into the postseason mix and provide a compelling argument to keep coach Norv Turner around.
The Chargers have dropped seven of eight following a 3-1 start thanks to a series of injuries — particularly along the offensive line — and baffling implosions.