By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH — The path back to the playoff hunt hasn’t exactly been daunting for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Four wins over four teams in various stages of development — the still winless as Christmas approaches Cleveland Browns, the banged up Indianapolis Colts, the erratic New York Giants and the suddenly stumbling Buffalo Bills — has put Pittsburgh right back where it was in early October: in control of its destiny in the AFC North.
And sorry, they’re not sorry about the road they’ve taken to get here.
“You can’t say just because we beat a team on their bad day that they (stink),” guard Ramon Foster said with a laugh on Monday.
It might be that the Steelers (8-5) are playing so well at the moment, it just kind of looks that way. The team that struggled early in the season on the road against so-so opposition isn’t just winning games, it is overwhelming them. Consider this: Pittsburgh hasn’t trailed any point during its current four-game run.
“December football is all about running the ball and playing good defense and we’ve done that,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said.
For three hours in the snow on Sunday, the Steelers sent the Bills skidding all over snowy New Era Field in a one-sided 27-20 romp . Running back Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers’ cohesive offensive line mashed Buffalo into submission. Bell’s franchise record 236 yards rushing — no small feat for a franchise that’s played 1,210 games (playoffs included) across 84 seasons — came on 38 clock-chewing carries that showcased everything that’s made him arguably the most dynamic back in the league.
If he wasn’t putting his hand on the back of one of his linemen while waiting for a hole to open then he was shedding would-be tacklers in the open field or — in perhaps his only questionable decision of the day — launching himself six feet into the air in an attempt to hurdle Buffalo’s Ronald Darby.
While it took Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley a full half to realize the most direct path to victory came with the ball in Bell’s hands instead of an uncharacteristically mistake-prone Ben Roethlisberger, the line realized it far earlier.
“Those first three runs Le’Veon had, you knew it was going to be a special day,” said Foster, who sat out while nursing a bruised chest and watched backup B.J. Finney fill in admirably. “The ball wasn’t coming out right when we were throwing it. The run is where it was at for us and what better way to do it against the No. 1 (offensive) rushing team in the league?”
It’s a method that’s caught on during Pittsburgh’s resurgence. The Steelers have controlled play early, building 14-0 leads in each of their last four games, forcing opponents to rely on the pass to catch up. That wasn’t a problem early in the season as Pittsburgh’s rebuilt secondary searched for chemistry and its pass rush took a sabbatical. Now putting the ball in the air against the Steelers offers no guarantees.
Pittsburgh has picked up 18 of its 31 sacks over the last month and picked off five passes in the process. The Bills came in averaging over 160 yards rushing a game but managed just 67, the fourth time in the Steelers’ last five games they held the opponents under 100 yards on the ground. Still, Buffalo’s two garbage-time touchdowns took just a bit of the swagger out an otherwise dominant afternoon.
“We all understand that we got to finish strong, we got to play harder, and we got to continue to get better,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “But guys are feeling a lot better on a four-game win streak than on a four-game losing streak. The chemistry in the locker room feels a lot better, where we are in the standings.”
A trip to Cincinnati (5-7-1) waits next weekend before Baltimore visits in what could be a de facto AFC North title game. Considering where the Steelers were after dropping to 4-5 following a late meltdown against Dallas on Nov. 13, they’ll take it.
“We’re going to keep riding the wave,” Foster said.