ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Receiver Antonio Brown is well aware of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ track record of successfully mounting late-season playoff pushes.
When December rolls around, the Steelers traditionally heat up.
“The goal is to continue to get hot,” Brown said. “We know what’s at stake. We know what’s expected of us. And we want to finish strong.”
Following a four-game swoon, the Steelers (7-5) are on a roll in having won three straight to move into a tie with Baltimore atop the AFC North in preparing to travel to play the Buffalo Bills (6-6) on Sunday.
This is no time for a letdown, especially after an efficient 24-14 win over the New York Giants .
“You know how important these games are for us in terms of positioning,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Like we talked about openly last week, December football: Getting into that mentality and understanding what December football is like.”
Since 2000, the Steelers have combined to go 46-18 over their final four games of a season. And they’ve only twice had two or fewer wins over the season’s final quarter, going 1-3 in both 2012 and 2007.
That’s not been the case in Buffalo, where the Bills’ inability to produce a finishing kick has been a contributing factor to their 16-season playoff drought, the NFL’s longest active streak.
Since 2000, the Bills are a combined 25-39 in the season’s final quarter, and have won more than two of their final four games once. That happened in 2004 when Buffalo was on a 6-0 roll before being eliminated from contention with a season-ending home loss to a Steelers team that rested its starters after having already secured its playoff spot.
“This experience right here could be the start of something new,” Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is to take seize of it right now, this opportunity that we have.”
The Bills have left little margin for error in having to win out and get help from other teams to have a shot at the postseason.
They must also rebound from a dreadful collapse at Oakland, where Buffalo squandered a 15-point third-quarter lead in a 38-24 loss .
TESTY TAYLOR: Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor isn’t taking kindly to criticism.
“I’m done talking,” the second-year starter tersely said shortly after ending his 10-minute weekly news conference during which he faced numerous questions regarding his inconsistent play. Taylor is overseeing the NFL’s worst-ranked passing attack which, in his defense, has been depleted by injuries.
What’s concerning is how little impact Taylor has had influencing wins. His numbers are similar whether the Bills win or lose.
In six wins, he has 1,000 yards passing and eight touchdowns (including two rushing). In six losses, he has 1,292 yards passing and nine touchdowns (four rushing).
The big difference is the Bills’ NFL-leading rushing attack has 424 more yards in its six wins than losses.
SHADY vs. JUICE: Two of the NFL’s most dynamic running backs are squaring off. Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy leads the NFL in averaging 5.5 yards per carry, while Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell is averaging 145 yards from scrimmage since missing the first three games because of an NFL suspension.
“That’s a bad man right there,” McCoy said of Bell.
McCoy is no slouch, having already topped 100 yards rushing five times and 100 yards from scrimmage in seven times.
WINTER WONDERLAND: Snow’s in the forecast this weekend, and that’s fine for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“It’s fun to play in the snow,” said Roethlisberger, who recalled growing up watching Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly competing in the frosty elements. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
SEEKING SACK HELP: The Bills are coming off their first game of the season without a sack. And cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman knows it’s never easy hauling down Roethlisberger, who’s been sacked just 16 times this season.
Roethlisberger’s 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame is particularly daunting for the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Robey-Coleman.
“I’m going to let you know right now, I’m not big enough to bring him down,” he said with a laugh. “I’m going to need the cavalry to come and help me out a little bit. I might be able to probably pull down his shoulder sleeve, but that’s about it.”
TURNING THE CORNER: Pittsburgh’s rejuvenated secondary held the Giants in check last week thanks in part to cornerback Ross Cockrell . Drafted by Buffalo in 2014, he was cut loose in the 2015 preseason and picked up by Pittsburgh.
Bills coach Rex Ryan isn’t surprised by Cockrell’s success.
“I get the brilliant idea that maybe we should stash him on the practice squad,” Ryan said. “As soon as we did that, guess what? I thought no one had tape on him. Unfortunately for us, Pittsburgh picked him up.”
Red Zone D
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Once opponents get into the red zone, the Steelers take it as a challenge to keep them out of the end zone.
That’s part of the reason why Pittsburgh’s defense leads the league in stops inside the 20-yard line, including four goal-line stands in the past two weeks, entering Sunday’s road game against the Buffalo Bills.
“It’s a short field and teams feel like they can get it on you,” Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “They want to get one up on you, so as a defense, when you stop that, you go out there and assert yourself in a certain way and that’s what we do.”
Timmons did as much when he came through with a game-changing interception at the goal line last Sunday against the New York Giants.
Timmons picked off Eli Manning and the Steelers’ offense capitalized with a touchdown a little more than a minute later. Linebacker Ryan Shazier later broke up a pass on fourth-and-1 from the 3-yard line, helping the Steelers win their third straight game.
“That’s huge when you have an offense about to score and you stop them,” Timmons said. “We’re just trying to stop them and get the ball back to our offense.”
The Steelers rank 19th against the pass, giving up 256 yards per game and 14th in total yards allowed at almost 350 per game.
But Pittsburgh leads the NFL in red-zone touchdown efficiency at 42.5 percent, as opponents have scored 17 touchdowns in 40 red-zone drives this season.
“We don’t want to let them get down there, but when they get down there, we have to keep them out,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “That’s our job.”
Pittsburgh gave up 113 points during a recent four-game losing streak, but the Steelers have stiffened since, allowing just 30 points the previous three games. The Steelers, ranked No. 7 in the league in scoring defense at 19.7 points per game, held each of their previous three opponents to 14 points or less for the first time since 2011.
“Teams are trying to score points and we’re just trying to shut them down,” Shazier said. “We practice that every day, so when we get down (in the red zone), we’re ready for the situation.”
The right balance
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Technically, the calls were different. In the Pittsburgh Steelers huddle, however, the translation was the same: Get the ball to Le’Veon Bell and get out of the way.
Six straight times in the fourth quarter last Sunday against New York, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap, turned around and put the ball in the hands of Pittsburgh’s increasingly versatile and seemingly tireless running back. And six straight times Bell pushed the pile forward, protecting the lead, the ball to help put the finishing touches on a 24-14 victory.
“Obviously we’re trying to end the game and obviously they know that,” Bell said. “We’re just running the ball against their will and they can’t slow us down or stop us. It gives you a motivation boost.”
A reality check, too.
The offense that talked about putting up 30 points every week hasn’t reached that total during the three-game winning streak that’s pulled the Steelers (7-5) out of a midseason swoon and back into the thick of the AFC playoff race. Instead, Pittsburgh is leaning more heavily on a dominant line and Bell’s fresh legs.
Roethlisberger has thrown it 94 times and handed off 87 times over the last 12 quarters. While he insists it’s simply taking advantage of what the defense is giving it, there’s a little bit more at play. The wide receivers behind Antonio Brown have been a bit of a mess due to injuries and the defense is young and thin, particularly along the line. So why not burn the clock, give it to one of the best all-around players in the league and take your chances?
“I think Le’Veon got it going,” said tackle Chris Hubbard, who occasionally enters as a tight end to give the Steelers a little more push up front. “We found what we’re good at and what we’re comfortable with and we got into a rhythm.”
One that might not be so great for fantasy owners but works pretty well on the actual field. It might not look as pretty on the scoreboard as it did while averaging 34 points in their first four victories, but it seems the Steelers are fine with ditching style points for substance.
“At the end of the day, it’s December football,” Bell said. “We understand everybody is fighting for position. We just want to get the job done. That’s all there is too it.”
The explosiveness Pittsburgh showcased early in the year has been replaced by something more pragmatic. The Steelers have 17 scoring drives this season of 10 or more plays. Six of them have come over the last three weeks. It’s also taken some of the pressure off a defense that has risen from 30th in yards allowed to a respectable 14th over the last month.
PITTSBURGH (7-5) at BUFFALO (6-6)
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
OPENING LINE — Steelers by 2
RECORD VS. SPREAD — Steelers 7-5, Bills 5-6-1
SERIES RECORD — Steelers lead 15-9
LAST MEETING — Steelers beat Bills 23-10, Nov. 10, 2013
LAST WEEK — Steelers beat Giants 24-14; Bills lost to Raiders 38-24
AP PRO32 RANKING — Steelers No. 8, Bills No. 20
STEELERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (11), RUSH (18), PASS (8).
STEELERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (14), RUSH (6), PASS (19).
BILLS OFFENSE — OVERALL (19), RUSH (1), PASS (32).
BILLS DEFENSE — OVERALL (12), RUSH (25), PASS (8).
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Steelers have won five straight and nine of 10 against Bills, and three straight at Orchard Park, including 29-24 season-closing win in 2004 that eliminated Buffalo from playoff contention. … Steelers have won three straight since ending four-game skid. … They have combined record of 46-18 over final four games of season since 2000. Bills are 25-39 over same stretch during 16-year playoff drought. … At 99-57, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin one win from becoming 40th NFL coach and third in Pittsburgh with 100 victories. … With 3,034 yards passing, QB Ben Roethlisberger has topped 3,000-yard plateau for 11th consecutive season. … WR Antonio Brown has 49 TDs, two short of matching Lynn Swann for third on team list. … RB Le’Veon Bell is Steelers’ first player with 100 yards rushing in three straight games since Willie Parker had four-game streak spanning 2006-07. … LB James Harrison has franchise-leading 79 1/2 sacks and at least one in each of past three games. … Including American Football League, Bills (399-457-8) one win short of becoming 22nd franchise with 400 victories. … Buffalo opens three-game homestand before closing season at Jets. … Bills have topped 150 yards rushing in five straight games. Team record is seven straight spanning 1973-74. … QB Tyrod Taylor is 1-9 when attempting 30 or more passes, and 13-3 with 29 or fewer attempts. … Against Oakland, Buffalo held without sack for first time this season. … Defense has no takeaways in five of past six. … Fantasy Tip: Forecast of snow means Steelers RB Bell should have opportunity to plow through Buffalo defense that has allowed 322 yards and three TDs rushing past two games.