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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger wasn't making a prediction, exactly. Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback knows what the energy in a locker room feels like when things start to come together.
It happened in 2005 when the Steelers ripped off nine straight victories at the end of the season and earned the franchise's fifth Super Bowl title. It happened again in 2008, when Pittsburgh won nine of its final 10 to party under the confetti in Tampa.
And maybe — maybe — the mojo is returning. A steady 27-20 victory over Atlanta on Sunday lifted Pittsburgh (9-5) within one win of a return to the playoffs following a two-year absence. It was professional, not flashy. Last Roethlisberger checked, it's a formula that tends to work this time of year.
"If you get hot and play your best football at the right time then you are a dangerous football team," Roethlisberger said. "I don't know if we are there yet, but we got a win and are happy about it."
One that traded eye-popping offensive fireworks for something more responsible. The Steelers never trailed, didn't turn the ball over and made all the significant plays that mattered, from William Gay's club-record third interception return for a touchdown to Roethlisberger's aggressive throw to Heath Miller with 2 minutes left that allowed Pittsburgh to run out the clock.
In a season of erratic play from week to week, Sunday looked like four quarters of reassurance. No turnovers. No real sense of danger. Pittsburgh was focused, not frenzied. Call it a moment of growth from a group that rebuilt itself on the fly during consecutive 8-8 seasons. The Steelers are far from perfect, but they were closer than they've been in awhile.
Now they have to find a way to do it again next week against Kansas City (8-6) to lock down a postseason spot and set up a rematch with Cincinnati in the regular season finale, with the winner claiming the AFC North title.
"The job is not done," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "We really want to hit all our goals. That means first getting to the playoffs and then making some noise."
How much racket depends largely on if the defense can continue to find a way to play responsibly if not spectacularly. The Falcons piled up 408 yards of total offense, but Gay's scintillating 52-yard snag and sprint on the first play of the second quarter gave the Steelers a 13-point cushion that was never seriously threatened.
Atlanta had the ball just once with a chance to tie or take the lead and failed to record a single first down. Vince Williams stuffed Harry Douglas for a four-yard gain on third-and-6 with 4:50 remaining. The Falcons punted and Atlanta never regained possession.
"We played our way," Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "We started off good. We played the whole game and we kept the fire. Our coaches put us in good situations. The Falcons made their plays. We stayed with it and we finished."
And they did it in a way that served as a perfect symbol for the aggressive mindset preached by coach Mike Tomlin on down. Facing third-and-1 at the Atlanta 39 coming out of the 2-minute warning, the Steelers could have run Le'Veon Bell behind the left side of scrimmage and taken their chances.
They did, but in an entirely different way. Roethlisberger faked to Bell then rolled to his right. He spotted tight end Heath Miller running 20 yards downfield. The completion effectively ended the competitive portion of the contest and crystallized Tomlin's approach that the Steelers, as he loves to say, will not "live in our fears."
When Pittsburgh doesn't, the Steelers believe they are every bit as dangerous as top teams of the AFC. They have two more chances in the regular season to earn the right to prove it in January. Entering December, the Steelers knew they needed to be perfect to think about the playoffs. They're halfway there.
"We are who we are and we are not a perfect group by any stretch," Tomlin said. "But we will fight the fight until the end together."
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