PITTSBURGH – 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. San Diego needs to win out to avoid its first losing season since 2003, the year before the Chargers drafted quarterback Philip Rivers to help resuscitate the franchise.
Rivers did that and more, leading San Diego to four straight playoff appearances from 2006-2009, including a memorable push in 2008 when the Chargers won their last four games to capture the division title at 8-8.
Mathematically, there's no chance of repeating the feat this time around. And even if there was, Rivers allows the vibe in the locker room is one of frustration, not optimism.
"We've been 4-8 before and with playoff chances just as slim and bleak, yet in some ways this feels worse," Rivers said. "I remember being in the stadium in Atlanta after we lost in 2008 at 4-8 and that was about as low as I thought I could ever be. So I guess this ranks right up there and it's been tough because we've had a chance in every single game."
On that front, he's right. All seven of San Diego's losses during its two-month swoon have been by 11 points or less and three of them have come against the AFC North, including a lifeless 7-6 meltdown at Cleveland in October and a stunning implosion in a 16-13 overtime loss to Baltimore two weeks ago in which the Ravens converted fourth-and-29 in the final minutes of regulation to tie it.
Not exactly the fall Rivers had in mind. He expected to spend December shadowboxing Denver's Peyton Manning for a division title. Instead Rivers is defeat away from his first losing season as a quarterback.
"I think that in seventh grade we had (one) but I played a little wide-out and other things believe it or not," he said. "I don't know what it's like and I don't know how many guys do here. I know that since I've been here in '04 we haven't had one. We had a couple of 8-8's. That's something that as a group and as a competitor, you still care about."
The Steelers aren't exactly in the clear themselves, but knocking off the Ravens on the road gave the locker room a needed jolt. Though cornerback Ike Taylor will miss his first game in eight years with a fractured right ankle, Pittsburgh is getting healthy and gaining momentum.
It's a formula that helped propel the Steelers to the Super Bowl two years ago. The memory remains fresh, just like Tomlin's message to focus on the details and take care of the task in front of you before getting too worked up about the one coming behind it.
"It's not going to be an average team that wins in the playoffs," Wallace said. "Even though we haven't been great the whole year, if we get great now, that's all that really matters."
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