PITTSBURGH (AP) — Left for dead in mid-December, the Pittsburgh Steelers are heading back to the playoffs anyway.
Pittsburgh clinched a wild-card spot Sunday when Tennessee upset Jacksonville, giving the Steelers (10-7) a playoff berth that seemed unlikely following a three-game skid that included losses to lowly Arizona and New England.
Coach Mike Tomlin inserted third-stringer Mason Rudolph at quarterback after getting blown out at Indianapolis on Dec. 16, and Rudolph responded by helping Pittsburgh reel off three consecutive wins over Cincinnati, Seattle and AFC North champion Baltimore on Saturday.
The Steelers will be the seventh seed and play at AFC East champion Buffalo in the wild-card round Sunday at 1 p.m.
Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff game since beating Kansas City in the divisional round of the 2016 postseason. The Steelers have lost each of their last four playoff games decisively, falling to New England in the 2016 AFC Championship, Jacksonville in the division round in 2017, Cleveland in the first round in 2020 and Kansas City in the first round in 2021.
Pittsburgh will have to move forward without star outside linebacker T.J. Watt. The perennial All-Pro and Defensive Player of the Year candidate left the victory over Baltimore with a knee injury that is expected to sideline him indefinitely.
J.J. Watt — T.J.’s retired brother — wrote on social media that the Steelers’ star pass-rusher has a Grade 2 MCL strain and the expectation is he’ll need a “couple weeks of rest/recovery.”
The Steelers have endured a topsy-turvy season that included them getting off to a 6-3 start despite getting outgained in each game. They then dropped four of five, including a loss to Cleveland on Nov. 19 that led to embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s firing two days later.
The offense momentarily perked up in a win over Cincinnati, but starting quarterback Kenny Pickett injured his right ankle in the second quarter against Arizona on Dec. 3. Mitch Trubisky took over and was largely ineffective as the Steelers fell to the Cardinals, Patriots and Colts to fall outside the playoff picture.
Tomlin turned to Rudolph, one of the longest-tenured players on the team who had spent two-plus years buried on the bench, in search of a spark. He provided one that has propelled the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Rudolph has thrown for 719 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, with Pickett — now fully recovered from ankle surgery — serving as the backup on Saturday in Baltimore.
While Tomlin said last week he would wait to decide who would get the ball should Pittsburgh’s season extend beyond Week 18, it’s almost certain that Rudolph will get a chance to continue his unlikely renaissance against the Bills.
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