When the Steelers' season started nearly 31⁄2 months ago, with the usual expectations of a winning record and playoff run, this figured to be perhaps the biggest game on their schedule.
Cincinnati at home before a national audience on a mid-December Sunday night, James Harrison back in the house, their defense making Andy Dalton's life miserable, playoff implications all around.
Bring on the cold, bring on the Bengals, bring on No. 92, bring on January.
Uh, never mind.
NBC elected to keep this as its game of the week, but the only team in Heinz Field that has much to play for is Cincinnati (9-4), which can clinch the AFC North with a win in Pittsburgh for the second successive season and a Baltimore (7-6) loss at Detroit (7-6) on Monday night.
The Steelers (5-8)? Their incentive heading into a three-game closing stretch that hasn't been this unimportant since 2003 is to avoid their first losing record in 10 years — and to dodge the first such sub-.500 records for coach Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger.
Pardon the Steelers for harrumphing a few “Bah, humbugs.”
“We've got three games to get to .500,” Roethlisberger said, outlining as bleak an early winter's scenario as this cast of Steelers has ever had.
There are complicated routes to the playoffs for the Steelers — amazingly — but they require the Ravens and Dolphins to lose out and the Chargers to fold, too. Not even the Pythagorean theorem is as complicated as this formula.
A few weeks ago, the Steelers were playing to remain, as Tomlin said, relevant. Now, another “r” word is in their vocabulary: respect.
“Those guys (the Bengals) came into our house last year and ruined our playoff opportunity,” wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “We went into their house on a Monday night (in September) and took a beating pretty good (a 20-10 loss). We have an opportunity in front of our hometown fans (to) give them a glimpse of a Steelers team that's finishing regardless of circumstances.”
Brown and Roethlisberger have some personal incentives as each can finish up team record-setting statistical seasons.
But, otherwise, their fans can use their final two home games — the Steelers close it out Dec. 29 against Cleveland — to say hello to a returning Harrison and goodbye to a cast of players who won't be back next season. That group could include Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark and Emmanuel Sanders, all of whom are unsigned for next season.
And what kind of reception will Harrison get? He probably will hear a mix of cheers and boos as former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace did last week with Miami.
“It will be a big deal because he's James and what he's done,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “He's had an exceptional career. Guys like that eventually wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You can't take that away, and being a big bully along the way with it.”
A big bully? James Harrison?
“A very respectful bully, and that's the best part of him,” Lewis said.
The best part of Harrison's career was in Pittsburgh, and no doubt he's glad he never saw a season like this, one in which the Steelers have been bullied rather than doing the bullying.
“Maybe in the offseason we'll look back and scratch our heads,” Roethlisberger said.
There's plenty of time for that now, too.
This article was written by Channel 11’s news exchange partners at TribLIVE.