A dozen years in the NFL have taught Ike Taylor plenty of lessons.

Perhaps the most enduring one is this: nothing comes easy for the veteran cornerback and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Nothing.

"For some odd reason we always give each other heart attacks on the sideline," Taylor said.

Good teams. Bad teams. Average teams. No matter the opponent the Steelers somehow find a way to turn each weekend into a three-hour high-wire act.

So while Taylor is encouraged as Pittsburgh takes a 7-4 record into a welcome bye week, he's not exactly ready to start thinking about January and beyond.

"We've just got to stay consistent," Taylor said. "There can't be ebb and flow. We know sometimes teams (are) going to catch momentum and we understand that but we've got a standard. When we start fast, we've got to finish fast. Since I've been here that's the way we play."

Well, not always. Pittsburgh hasn't won a playoff game in nearly four years, a lengthy drought for a franchise where each day players walk by a trophy case lined with a half-dozen Lombardi Trophies.

A return to the postseason is within reach but plenty of work remains to be done if the Steelers want to emerge from the chaotic AFC North, where all four clubs are at least two games over .500.

Taylor isn't one to peek at the standings however. Last time he checked, the path to a division title is pretty easy.

"We just need to go out and win," Taylor said. "When you win you ain't got to go look around and see what's going on outside."

There's been enough going on inside to keep the Steelers busy.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown are in the midst of career years. Running back Le'Veon Bell is becoming one of the most versatile players in the league.

And the defense has somehow held things together during a 4-1 stretch despite missing four starters: Taylor, linebackers Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones and safety Troy Polamalu.

Taylor appears to be close to returning after breaking his right forearm in Week 3 against Carolina. Jones' wrist is nearly healed. So is Shazier's right knee.

While Polamalu's sprained knee remains tender, the Steelers don't need to be dominant but merely ditch the sporadic play that cost them in perplexing losses to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets.

For the offense, that means finding the right balance to take the pressure off Roethlisberger. On the other side of the ball, it means avoiding the letdowns that have allowed inferior teams to stay in games.

"I want to be able to rely on my defense and say, 'Hey, we're going to come in and play every week,'" defensive end Cameron Heyward said. "We might give up a few plays here, a few plays there but overall we're going to kick a lot of tail."

Something the Steelers have done regularly down the stretch under coach Mike Tomlin. Pittsburgh is 22-13 over the final five games of the season during Tomlin's seven years on the job, including 4-1 marks in 2008, 2010 and 2011. The Steelers made the playoffs on all three occasions and made it to the Super Bowl twice.

Four wins this time around would virtually assure Pittsburgh of a return to the playoffs after going 8-8 in 2012 and 2013. Yet the Steelers allow they remain very much a work in progress.

They have struggled to play well on the road the past two months and needed to rally from an 11-point second-half deficit to put away the perpetually rebuilding Titans on Monday night.

Yet Pittsburgh may have stumbled upon the right formula while wearing down Tennessee in the bitter cold.

Bell plowed his way to a career-high 204 yards and helped the offense hold the ball for nearly 40 minutes, allowing the defense to find its footing after sluggish play allowed Tennessee to take the lead. Roethlisberger passed for a modest 207 yards but was at his best late.

For the final 15 minutes the Steelers looked every bit like a Super Bowl contender, pushing the Titans around and running off the final 6:58 behind Bell and an offensive line that relished the chance to attack.

Bell finished with 35 touches, a total that may become the norm as the temperature drops and passing becomes more difficult. He's more than fine with handling a heavy workload.

He's only 22, but last time Bell checked this is what the Steelers are supposed to do this time of year, right?

"I'll take as many carries as we need to win the game," Bell said. "I didn't feel fatigued or tired during the game, and the cold weather was no problem. I'm ready."

After consecutive Januarys watching the playoffs on TV, Bell's teammates are too.

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