Then, reality. If the seesaw Steelers -- who've lost four of five -- win out, they are in what players call "the tournament."
"We're upset," said defensive end Brett Keisel, who had a fumble recovery. "They're a tough team; we feel like we're a tough team. We didn't make enough plays down the stretch to win. But the fact is, we still have a chance. That's how we have to look at it. It's not like we're finished. We still can climb our way out of it and have a shot."
Pittsburgh (7-7) had its chances Sunday before Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr picked off a pass in overtime and returned it 36 yards to put the ball at the 1 and set up Dan Bailey's winning kick.
The Steelers had been up seven with 12:37 left after Antonio Brown's 7-yard touchdown, only to allow the Cowboys back in. In a tie game, Pittsburgh drove to the Dallas 37 with 3:35 left, only to have Ben Roethlisberger get sacked by Cowboys pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. The Steelers had a first-and-10 at their own 46 with 1:34 left, only to wind up punting it away. And, of course, they had received the ball in overtime before Roethlisberger threw a pass behind Mike Wallace, hitting Carr's hands instead.
" 'We control our own destiny,' " said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, recounting what Tomlin told the team. "That was the whole entire message right there. That's just the reality of everything. You can't look back at the losses the last two weeks. We still have our opportunity to be in the playoffs. At the end of the day, it's still something to look forward to."
It has been that kind of season for the Steelers. Up and down. Enduring plenty of health issues. Losing Roethlisberger to a serious, potentially devastating injury that wound up costing him just three starts. Going through the lows of losing to the Ravens without him, and the highs of, well, beating the Ravens without him. Starting 0-3 on the road, then racing back to a 6-3 record overall. And now, just the opposite.
That explains the conflicting emotions. How can they feel despair when, thanks to the Ravens' loss earlier Sunday, little had changed for them? How can they count this as a missed opportunity when opportunity hasn't gone anywhere?
"It stings right now," linebacker Larry Foote said. "Probably tomorrow, (when) coach shows us all the scenarios and we watch the film (is when we'll get over it). But like I said before, our goal is to win the Super Bowl. We're not playing right now, and making our goals harder to reach, but we still got life. We gotta make a decision and turn this thing around."
The search for consistency is the first battle. Sustaining the bright spots. They have two games to get it done.
"We just got a figure out a way to put four quarters together, get some consistency," said Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who had seven catches for 92 yards and a score on Sunday. "During games when we're on a roll, it feels like we can't be stopped. But for whatever reason, we're not able to sustain that for four quarters."
Evidence suggests that Pittsburgh could pull it together in "the tournament" -- if they get in. Could 2012 be like 2005? When the Steelers were 7-5, won their last four to get in, and ran the table to nab a title? Could the trials and tribulations they've endured during the regular season pay off in January?
"Once you get in, everyone's got a clean slate," Keisel said. "It doesn't matter how you got in, it's that you're in. That's how you have to look at it. We gotta pick up the pieces. We're playing two teams that we know at the end and hopefully that can be an advantage."
So that's where the Steelers are. Reeling. With all their options open. Fortunate to be still alive, as Woodley noted. But also in a spot they deserve, with no margin for error.
"Take care of our business," Foote said, "and we'll get a ticket."
What else is going on? Here is a rundown:
Kirk Cousins' value skyrockets
It's safe to say that the Washington Redskins didn't do anything close to wasting a draft pick when they selected Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round last April. Instead, what some considered to be a redundant move after the Redskins had traded for the right to pick Robert Griffin III wound up keeping them in the playoff hunt.
The 'Skins had enough confidence in Cousins to sit the recently injured RG3 as a precaution on Sunday, and all Cousins did was complete 26 of his 37 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns -- including a sweet 54-yarder to Leonard Hankerson -- in a win over the Cleveland Browns. If you were impressed by what Cousins did last week against the Baltimore Ravens, you should have been more impressed this time around.
Let's take this a step further. RG3 isn't going anywhere. There will be no battle for the starting job. Washington needs picks. Cousins is under contract for three more years, with a base salary of $480,000 in 2013, $570,000 in 2014 and $660,000 in 2015.
Would a team give up a second-round pick for him this offseason? Has someone seen enough? Makes me wonder ...
Time to make a stand
For Arizona especially, winning meant something. Nothing had been going right for the Cardinals. When team president Michael Bidwill spoke to reporters last week, he emphasized that the organization would be evaluating the entire product. It's noteworthy that the team responded when the coach really needed it to.
Bears in a free-fall
What to do about coach Lovie Smith and his staff? Some have already called for his firing locally. Yes, Smith has taken the Bears to the Super Bowl and been named Coach of the Year. But if Chicago is sunk by another late-season swoon? It might be hard to come back from that, even for a respected leader like Smith.
Here is what Marshall, who always speaks his mind, had to say:
"Everybody involved in offense should be held accountable, even if that means jobs," Marshall said. "Everyone on offense should be held accountable. It's been this way all year. There's no excuse. There's still hope, but at the same time, we need to be held accountable."
Simply put, Chicago has too many weapons to be so bad on offense. And while there will be plenty of dialogue about Smith's job security, one wonders if an offensive cleansing (including coordinator Mike Tice) would be enough to save Smith.
Some rapid-fire takes:
Darlington: Statements made
» OK, Atlanta Falcons, I believe. You win. I doubted last week, thinking I had figured out that your wins over the first few months of the season weren't as meaningful as one loss to the Carolina Panthers. I take it all back. The way you crushed the New York Giants -- in big-boy fashion -- made me reverse course.
» How do the G-Men destroy the New Orleans Saints one week and get destroyed by the Falcons the next? Eli Manning throwing two picks in the first 20 minutes on Sunday didn't help. But nothing was worse than Big Blue going for it on fourth-and-1 on the Falcons' 11 and failing. That ended the game. Nevertheless, I'm not getting off the Giants' bandwagon yet. Not with the way they closed last year. Not even with that 34-point loss. Not when Eli still has drives left.
» I don't have much to say about the Denver Broncos. They drilled the free-falling Baltimore Ravens, 34-17, for their ninth straight win. And they dominated this game in every way. Peyton Manning threw for 204 yards, Knowshon Moreno totaled 118 yards, receiver Eric Decker had 133 yards and Chris Harris added a pick-six.
» Joe Flacco hit his team's situation on the head after Sunday's ugly loss, saying that while the Baltimore Ravens are 9-5, it feels like they're 0-14. It does. The Ravens have lost three in a row, and the offense actually looked worse after former coordinator Cam Cameron's firing. The Ravens might be the least scary team in the postseason.
» It's been a disappointing season for the Oakland Raiders, but watching a finally healthy Darren McFadden bust out for 149 total yards against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday must have been comforting. The only question with McFadden is if he can stay healthy, and it's a fair one going forward. But when he is, he clearly can play.
» The Green Bay Packers drafted Mason Crosby in 2007, using a sixth-round pick on a kicker who has since hovered under 78 percent for his NFL career. Now, with 12 misses in 14 games, it's time to look elsewhere. I am all for loyalty. But a Super Bowl contender cannot go into the postseason with a liability anywhere, let alone at a spot that promises to burn it. Can't do it.
» I don't know which direction the Jacksonville Jaguars are going in with regard to the future, but if they secure that No. 1 pick, it won't hurt.
» That was one inefficient day for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford against the Cardinals. What happened to those guys? The Lions took many character risks in the past few drafts; is this what happens when they get frustrated?