PITTSBURGH - Fernando Velasco expected to see panic after the Pittsburgh Steelers limped through a winless September. Apathy and frustration are supposed to be part of the mix when a team gets off to its worst start in more than 40 years, right?
Maybe in most places. But not in Pittsburgh.
"I had been 0-4 in my career but it was a different kind of 0-4," said the veteran center, who signed with the Steelers on Sept. 9 after Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year with a right knee injury in the opener. "It was still 0-4 but the guys, their attitude was still positive coming to work every day trying to get better."
Nearly two months later, the Steelers (5-6) are right where they expected to be: battling for a playoff spot in a wide open if decidedly mediocre AFC. Pittsburgh ripped Cleveland 27-11 on Sunday for its third straight victory to move into a six-way tie for the AFC's second wild card.
"It's not how you drive, it's how you arrive," rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "You can have the roughest starts, but it's about how you finish."
Perhaps, but the Steelers started their run by refusing to succumb to the somewhat harsh reality that they appeared out of it after getting drummed by New England 55-31 three weeks ago.
"You know, you can throw it in the tank," Velasco said. "I can honestly say nobody on this team did."
Not on offense, where coordinator Todd Haley gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the freedom to work from the no-huddle and call plays at the line of scrimmage. In exchange, Roethlisberger is playing to the very tenets of Haley's attack. After getting sacked 36 times through the first nine games, Roethlisberger has been taken down just once in 80 drop backs the last two weeks, due in part to his concerted effort to get the ball out of his hands and stop freelancing.
No one gave in on a defense that is back to its usual frenetic self. The Steelers got five sacks on Sunday, forced four turnovers and confused Cleveland quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden with a variety of blitzes. Cornerback William Gay forced a fumble by blind-siding Campbell in the third quarter, forcing a fumble safety Will Allen returned deep into Browns territory. Gay later scored the first touchdown of his career on a 21-yard interception return that ended the competitive portion of things.
And nobody quit on special teams, as Shaun Suisham hit a 47-yard field goal into the wind on Pittsburgh's first drive to give the Steelers a quick lead.
Pressed on what exactly is the biggest difference between the team he sees now and the one that resembled a franchise in free fall during the schedule's first half, coach Mike Tomlin shrugs his shoulders.
"Where do I start?" Tomlin said. "Teams evolve. Sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. I'm not going to dredge up the past. That is the past. We had a lot to do with that. I'm more concerned about pressing forward with the men that we're playing with now and their preparation this week."
A week that could decide whether December remains as tantalizing as it looks now. Pittsburgh has just three days to get ready for rival Baltimore (5-6) on the road Thanksgiving night. The Steelers won the first meeting 19-16 last month, though the joy was short-lived. Pittsburgh followed it by looking inept during a 21-18 loss to Oakland the following week.
It's the kind of performance that stings, particularly when judged against how crisply the Steelers have played to get back in it. Yet looking back isn't part of the tunnel vision approach Velasco said has been the key to a team that refuses to peek down the road or in the rearview mirror.
"You've got to learn from (the losses), but we lost," Velasco said. "At the end of the day it still says an L. Nothing we can do now. Just got to move forward."
It's a move the Steelers can make at something close to full strength. Defensive end Brett Keisel, linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Shamarko Thomas, who each missed the last two games due to injury, have a chance to play against the Ravens. It's less promising for nose tackle Steve McLendon, who was seen wearing a boot around his sprained ankle Monday.
Reserve Al Woods picked up the first two sacks of his career after filling in for McLendon on Sunday, symbolic of the way the Steelers have rallied to make a lost year appear suddenly compelling.
"The guys knew, 'Hey, we know we've got a great team,'" Velasco said. "We know we can be good. We know we can move the ball on offense. The defense can do their thing. Just everybody was comfortable and comfortable in themselves to get this thing turned around, and we did."