Pittsburgh positioning itself for deep run

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Although the Steelers didn't officially clinch a postseason berth Sunday, it is safe to punch their playoff ticket following a 20-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

The Steelers improved to 16-5 in December games since 2004, which is the time of year the elite NFL teams position themselves for the final push.

The AFC North-leading Steelers (10-3) have mastered the art of winning ugly.

With three games remaining, the Steelers (10-3) are one game up on next week's division opponent, the Baltimore Ravens (9-4), and hold a two-game lead on the division-leading New York Jets (8-5) and Denver Broncos (8-5) for the No. 2 seed in the conference. Still at stake is an important first-round bye and home-field advantage up until to the AFC title.

With the exception of the turnover battle, the Steelers were outplayed throughout the game. Dallas finished with more passing yards (194-168), rushing yards (95-70) and first downs (15-13). But after trailing 13-3 midway through the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh tightened up and ran off 17 unanswered points in the final seven minutes, 15 seconds of the game.

"People get too preoccupied with style points," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "That was a beautiful football game because we displayed mettle and we hung together."

Tomlin is right. At this point, style points are pointless. The Steelers will go back to work and try to correct their mistakes and they feel a lot better about doing so with another victory in hand.

Here is what else we learned about Pittsburgh in its win over Dallas:

Big-play Deshea

Part of Pittsburgh's theme this year has been a different hero stepping up every week, and against the Cowboys, it was Deshea Townsend's turn.

The veteran cornerback is in his 11th season and one of the oldest players (33) on the defense. But Townsend made a huge 25-yard interception return for a touchdown that produced the game-winning score for Pittsburgh with 1:40 remaining.

Deep in its own territory, Dallas took a chance late by throwing against the Steelers on second down, and Townsend picked off a pass intended for Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (six catches, 62 yards).

"It was a great pass -- right at eye level," Townsend said smiling. "I saw the tight end and nothing else was there."

Townsend's teammates were genuinely elated for him making the big play against Dallas.

He's had an up-and-down season. Townsend began the season as the starter, suffered an injury and and returned to the lineup as a backup.

But Townsend never complained and took advantage for one of the biggest plays of his career.

"He is a team guy," Tomlin said. "He doesn't care about anything but winning. ... It is great that he had an opportunity to make a significant play like that for us, because he is as deserving as anyone."

Steelers are owning fourth quarters

In two marquee wins over the Cowboys (8-5) and New England Patriots (8-5), Pittsburgh has been dominant down the stretch of games. The Steelers have outscored their last two opponents 27-0 in the fourth quarter.

The offense is still shaky at times. The Cowboys notched five sacks and the running game produced just 70 yards on 26 carries (2.7 yards average).

Dallas kept Pittsburgh's offense at bay for three and a half quarters. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (204 yards, one touchdown) didn't heat up until the final seven minutes.

"We left a couple plays out there," Pittsburgh receiver Nate Washington said. "But at the end of the day, as long as the Pittsburgh Steelers are on top, that's all that matters to us."

An assist goes to the defense, which didn't let Dallas get beyond midfield the entire fourth quarter. That gave the struggling Steelers offense a short field to produce points and saved valuable time on the clock in the final quarter.

"Our defense is the best in the world for a reason," Roethlisberger said. "They kept us in the game and gave us an opportunity to come back late."

Baltimore awaits

Pittsburgh currently sits in the driver's seat for the No. 2 AFC playoff seed. Yet the biggest threat might be in its own division.

The streaking Ravens quietly have pounded opponents. The teams meet Sunday in Baltimore in the biggest AFC North game this season.

You had the sense that there was a lot of unfinished business following Pittsburgh's 23-20 overtime victory over the Ravens in Week 4. The game was played in Heinz Field and the Ravens, with a very raw rookie in quarterback Joe Flacco, gave the Steelers all they could handle.