Going into the Stretch

CLEVELAND - Winning on the road is one of the things that separate good teams from the bad. Invariably, the last teams standing at the conclusion of any season are the ones who not only know how to win in the comforts of their own building, but the ones who can get a victory on the road, too.<p> The Steelers are proving they are one of those teams.<p>

Sunday's victory over Cleveland wasn't just any road win. It was a road win in a place where the Steelers traditionally struggle. The Browns entered this game holding a 34-15 lead against the Steelers in games at Cleveland. That, in itself, is big.

But Sunday's win was also a road victory within their division, something of even greater importance.

"To be 5-3 is big, but to be 4-0 in our division, that is so much more important," said Steelers linebacker Joey Porter of the Steelers, who went 3-0 this season against their division opponents on the road.

"That affects our playoff standing. Losing those three games hurts us, but at the same time, when you're 4-0 in your division, you control your own destiny. Right now, we're going to try to put it out of reach."

That's right, the Steelers are now talking about the playoffs. With Sunday's victory, they can start positioning themselves for the stretch run.

The Steelers now own what is effectively a two-game lead in their division. And after playing four of their last five games on the road (going 3-1 away from Heinz Field), the Steelers find themselves looking at a second half of the season in which they play five of their next eight games at home.

"To start off 0-2 like we did to now be 5-3 shows a lot of character," said receiver Hines Ward.

Kind of like the character it takes to win a game in which you don't necessarily play your best.

Cleveland pointed to Sunday's game as the be-all, end-all to their season. The Browns pointed to it as a must-win game if they hoped to make the playoffs this season. And they played like a desperate team, clinging to the Steelers kicking and screaming throughout the loss.

Using that desperation, the Browns jumped on the Steelers for an early 14-3 lead. But like the team that rebounded from an 0-2 start, the Steelers dug down deep and scored the game's next two touchdowns to take a 17-14 halftime lead.

For a team that had become accustomed to building big first-half leads and then running out the clock in the second half, it was another hurdle they needed to cross.

The only other time a team had been ahead of them since Tommy Maddox became quarterback five games ago was at New Orleans. And the Steelers were unable to climb out of that hole. Now, they know they can do it.

"If it is never happens to you, you've never experienced it," said Ward. "Now, we've experienced it. We had a game where we had to come back and that will help us down the road."

So much of sports is about momentum and confidence. And now, the Steelers are playing with a lot of both. As a result, they not only think they are the team to beat again in the AFC North Division, they are that team.

"So many people wrote us off after we lost our first two games, but here we are," said safety Lee Flowers.

Here they are indeed, road weary and battle tested.

--Dale Lolley

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