Batch's unlikely heroics only fuel notion that Steelers will find way into playoffs

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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BALTIMORE -- Next time you handicap the AFC playoffs, make sure to include the Pittsburgh Steelers. Guaranteed, they'll be there.

I don't know how. I don't know when. I just know they'll be there, though probably not as the AFC North champion. That should be arch-rival Baltimore, a club that was supposed to handle the Steelers Sunday for all the right reasons ... but didn't.

But it's precisely that 23-20 loss to the Steelers that convinces me ... and should convince you ... never, ever, ever to discount the Steelers from the playoffs.

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Because they're going to make it.

I mean, look what they just accomplished: They beat the Ravens at home -- where Baltimore won its last 15 and 23 of 24 -- with a third-string quarterback who turns 38 this week. That would be Charlie Batch, and if the name sounds familiar it should. He's the has-been critics said couldn't play anymore, couldn't win anymore, especially after the Steelers committed eight turnovers in his first start last week.

Only he did.

In fact, it was Batch who led the Steelers to scores on half of their six second-half drives -- including a 78-yard march that ended in a touchdown and a 61-yard drive that consumed the last 6:14 and ended with Shaun Suisham's game-winning field goal. Surprising? Try this: Batch completed all but one of his 11 fourth-quarter passes, including all five on the game-clinching series.

"I've been in the league 15 years," said Batch, 6-3 as a starter with the Steelers, "and the one thing you can't do is dwell on the past. It's a long season, and, no matter what, all I can ask for is another opportunity. Being a backup, you don't know that that's going to happen. You just have to go out there and welcome that."

You have to welcome Batch, too. Because without him, the Steelers don't win.

He avoided critical sacks. He overcame a bad interception. He was calm in the huddle. He was accurate in the pocket. Most of all, he made big plays down the stretch like ... well, yeah, much like a decorated quarterback the Steelers were missing.

"I think it was a big game for Charlie Batch," said linebacker Larry Foote. "I know he's won a lot of game in this league, but it's got to go up toward the top. He responded the right way ... the way he should have responded."

But that's true of this Steelers' team. Just when you think they're toast ... when they have to retool their offensive line as they did Sunday ... when they have to turn to a third-string quarterback as they did Sunday ... when they have to hope for a frickin' miracle as they did Sunday ... they come through. It's what coach Mike Tomlin meant when he talked about guys "not letting go of the rope," and it's happened with this team too many times before.

Rewind the videotape to 2005 when the Steelers went into a mid-season funk, losing three straight, to stagger into the stretch drive. But then they pulled together, found something to push them to four straight wins and reached the playoffs as the last seed.

And then they won the Super Bowl.

I'm not saying that happens this time around, but I am saying I'd be careful before giving these guys a standing-eight count. I know, I know, the 2005 club had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup. These Steelers don't, but people close to the team believe Big Ben is close to rejoining the lineup ... and could return as soon as next weekend's game against San Diego.

That counts for something.

So does the return of safety Troy Polamalu. He was back in the lineup for the first time in eight contests, and it showed. A defense that couldn't produce takeaways suddenly could, and, OK, so it had two; the second led to a game-tying touchdown. What's more, the Steelers' defense allowed only one second-half score and held Baltimore to no more than 12 yards on four of its five second-half drives.

But let's not forget what's ahead, and I'm not talking about Christmas. Three of the Steelers' last four games are home, where the Steelers are 4-1, including a huge Dec. 23 contest against Cincinnati -- a club that is also 7-5 but hasn't beaten Baltimore or Pittsburgh in 10 straight games, losing to the Steelers earlier this season.

The Bengals are the only opponent left on Pittsburgh's schedule with a winning record. The Bengals finish with Pittsburgh and Baltimore. You make the call.

"We just solidified an opportunity," said tackle Max Starks. "[This win] still counts as only one win, but it's something that keeps us alive and keeps us in the playoff hunt. And that's the biggest thing. In December it matters when those teams get that momentum, and this is just the start of that momentum."

Exactly.

The Steelers have a history of overcoming adversity and dialing up the right plays, the important victories, when they must, and that happened again here in what Tomlin accurately described as "a big, necessary win." It not only stopped the bleeding; it reinforced the belief that Pittsburgh can win against all odds, no matter who they plug in at quarterback.

"We feel comfortable when everybody says we can't do it," said Foote. "We hear that every training camp going in -- reminding us how old we are, [and] we get a little uncomfortable when you guys [the media] start picking us. I'm proud of everybody, especially Charlie Batch."

He should be. He might have just saved Pittsburgh's season.

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