The 3-3 Pittsburgh Steelers have the look and feel of an 8-8 team. They're banged-up, depleted. They've lost to inferior opponents. Individual players have grossly underachieved. But they're still legit contenders.
The New England Patriots, another long-time conference power with major flaws, continue to attract believers because they're coached by Bill Belichick and quarterbacked by Tom Brady. Tomlin and Roethlisberger must be shown the same respect.
I might have picked Pittsburgh to miss the playoffs, but these men are champions.
Last Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a statement by beating the Cincinnati Bengals on the road. The win came on the heels of a loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 6, when it felt like the Steelers' season might have been on the brink. Pittsburgh reasserted itself in the AFC North, likely reminding the Bengals, who dropped to 3-4 after jumping out to a 3-1 start, of the little-brother feeling that can come with being compared to the big, bad Steelers.
The Baltimore Ravens are injured and can't stop the run. The Bengals, a team in which I believed during the preseason, are back to being the Bengals. All of a sudden, the thought process becomes: Why shouldn't the Pittsburgh Steelers have a shot in that division?
No Troy Polamalu? No Rashard Mendenhall? Injuries along the offensive line? No problem. As Tomlin confidently and calmly told me on SiriusXM NFL Radio this week, dealing with injuries is "what we are called on to do. Injuries are as big a part of the game as blocking and tackling."
Think about how other coaches make excuses. Tomlin sets the tone for the Steelers by considering injuries to be a basic, fundamental issue they must deal with every week. As Tomlin explained, "We are going to fight. We aren't going to always put out works of art."
How could you not love Mike Tomlin?
He maintains a "next man up" philosophy. Nobody epitomizes this mentality better than Doug Legursky, the reserve offensive lineman who is seemingly always pressed into action, drawing effusive praise from Tomlin for his work ethic and readiness. Or Jonathan Dwyer, the third-string running back who powered his way to 122 rushing yards on Sunday.
During the offseason, I thought the Steelers should have signed another runner. But general manager Kevin Colbert told me at the time that he liked his young core, even with Mendenhall's anterior cruciate ligament injury. He specifically mentioned the physical Dwyer. The Steelers felt confident they'd stolen him out of Georgia Tech when he fell to them in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft. As Tomlin quipped, "He was a 20-year-old when we drafted him. We've nurtured him through our system. Now, he's a wily vet at 23."
Dwyer's tale hits home, not just with regard to the "next man up" ethos (or, in this case, the "next man up after the next man up" ethos, considering that second-stringer Isaac Redman was also injured), but with regard to Pittsburgh's ability to successfully build its team via the draft.
Unlike the NFL's other golden boy quarterbacks, Roethlisberger doesn't always get his due. He's had major, disgraceful issues off the field. But to his credit, Roethlisberger has matured as a person and as a player.
By any measure, Roethlisberger is one of the league's five best signal-callers. He's an ultimate competitor, someone you want with the ball in his hands late in the game. Perhaps he doesn't get the proper recognition because of his checkered past, or his amazing (and at times maddening) ability to improvise. Roethlisberger also doesn't put up the numbers that would make him a top fantasy player in this computer-crunched, statistically-driven era.
But he's your guy if you want to win.
Despite all of the injuries and bad play the Steelers have endured, and despite his relationship with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Roethlisberger has quietly put together a season that should have him on the short list for the league's MVP award.
Think about it. Roethlisberger's play has masked deficiencies across the board. The Steelers' offensive line is a mess and a MASH unit. Mendenhall can't stay on the field. Receiver Mike Wallace can't catch a cold after his selfish holdout. The defense doesn't even remotely resemble a classic Steelers defense.
Big Ben's leadership abilities have been scrutinized through his years in Pittsburgh. They shouldn't be any longer.
"Ben has a desire to be that guy," Tomlin explained. "He's comfortable in his own shoes. He views himself as that guy. He doesn't necessarily have to orate in front of the team to be a leader."
The Steelers enter another week without Polamalu, who will be missed against Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris and the Washington Redskins on Sunday. RG3 is a dangerous player who has a chance to win every game he plays this year. This showdown is, basically, wide open.
Just how Mike Tomlin likes it.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.