Looking at the Pittsburgh Steelers' current playoff run, it's hard to not be impressed. Mike Tomlin's team hasn't lost since mid-November and the offense features a high-impact trio — Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown — that will likely go down in NFL history as one of the best group of skill position players of their generation. But looking at the team's winning streak and their first playoff win, I'm also wondering about the other side of the coin — the one that reminds of the Chiefs just last season.
As of November 13, the Steelers were 4-5, fresh off of a close loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Sitting just under .500, the season was getting away from Tomlin's crew, who could ill afford another loss if they wanted to control their own destiny. Whatever magic Tomlin conjured that week worked wonders since Pittsburgh has won every one of their eight games since — including wins over the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and, just last week, an opening round playoff win over the Miami Dolphins.
This story of a mediocre team suddenly looking unbeatable should sound familiar since the Chiefs took it to historic levels in 2015. While the Steelers were 4-5, the Chiefs ran the tables a month earlier, when they sat at 1-5 and decided then and there to control their own playoff destiny as well. The Chiefs rattled off 11 straight wins in a row, including a dominating win over the Houston Texans in the opening round of the playoffs.
And then it was over.
I wrote this at the time, and I still believe it to be true, but the Chiefs simply ran out of steam. After the season, head coach Andy Reid admitted in a moment of clarity that the team was tired. It's one thing to respond when your back is against the wall for a week or two, but that's not a long-term posture for health. The Chiefs last year looked like they were gassed, in playoff mode for months longer than anyone else. It was a magical season but the reserves were simply not there for them to hoist the Lombardi trophy.
As I look at the Steelers, I'm wondering the same. How long can Mike Tomlin and his staff fight with the sort of tenacity necessary to finish the job? They've already enjoyed a memorable season. They've weathered the storm, fought through their weaknesses and came out with not only a playoff appearance but a playoff win. It's another feather in everyone's cap, even if they'd only express disappointment at this stage if they lose.
For two straight months now, the Steelers have faced a win-or-out scenario, and it's the sort of grueling fight that eventually catches up to a team. Injuries add up. Stamina is lost. Roster depth is seriously tested. The makeshift solutions finally give way to the sheer enormity of the problem. Every playoff team faces these same issues, which is why an extra week off and roster health is so vital down the stretch.
If Pittsburgh has serious reason to take heart, it's due to the fact that they've been here before. Big Ben knows exactly what it takes to lift the Lombardi and Tomlin has coached this same path. But I still wonder if they've ever walked this road this tired before. As a Chiefs fan, I hope they hit their wall on Sunday.