“The Duck Caller is out there wingin’ it!”: How the Steelers are hunting for a playoff spot

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Great night for Houston. Bill O’Brien beat his mentor for the first time (Houston 28, New England 22) after losing to Bill Belichick five times. Deshaun Watson beat the guy he idolized as a developing quarterback.

Great late afternoon for Kansas City. The Chiefs played their best all-around game (KC 40, Oakland 9) and all but clinched the AFC West, up two with the tiebreaker with four to play. They’re rested and healthy going into Foxboro on Sunday.

Great day for Baltimore. No one will be shocked if Ravens 20, Niners 17 ends up being a Super Bowl preview. The Ravens are the best team in the league. In six weeks, they’ve traveled West to beat Seattle by 14 and the Rams by 39; at home, they’ve beaten New England by 17, Houston by 34 and San Francisco by a Justin Tucker 49-yarder in the rain at :00.

The Steelers aren’t as good as Baltimore, and they might not make the playoffs even. But that was one hell of a day for the team and the city and the coach (and the Duck), the 20-13 win over Cleveland.

Factoid of the Browns-Steelers Rivalry: Since Week 6, Matt Ryan has won two games, Philip Rivers has won two, and Carson Wentz has won two. Devlin Hodges has won three.

But my hero of the day is not Hodges—though he deserves credit, and he’ll get it here. The hero of the day is the Steelers coach who kept the focus on football, Mike Tomlin. In the maelstrom of inflammatory T-shirts, fans angry about the long suspension of Myles Garrett, and pre-game chatter that this was the day the Browns would take over the rivalry (per Dianna Russini of ESPN), Tomlin made this day about one thing and one thing only: football.

“I love Coach T,” Joe Haden told me from Pittsburgh on Sunday night. It was Haden’s late pick of Baker Mayfield that iced the victory. “He always keeps it very black and white. All week, his message was: Stop the run, contain Odell and Landry [receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry] and just play ball—they don’t like us, we don’t like them, who cares, just play.”

Quietly, the Steelers were a tribe before and after this game. If the Browns started something, Tomlin gave orders not to finish it. The game will be won by playing football, not by skirmishing. Did you notice Tomlin in the 17 days before the game? He never took the bait and never made inflammatory statements about the brawl that banned Garrett for the rest of the year and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey for two games. Nothing he could say would make the situation better or be good for his team, so he just zipped it. The loss of Pouncey, their unquestioned leader, hurt. Tomlin understood why he came to the defense of his quarterback when attacked by Garrett and actually appreciated it, even though he didn’t say that publicly. The team knew. Pouncey knew.

After the game, the Steelers had Pouncey FaceTimed into their post-game locker-room huddle. “He broke us down,” Haden said. (Translated, that’s something a coach or leaders does at the end of a practice or game, like “Steelers on three, 1-2-3!” or something collegial like that.)

Haden said: “Then Coach T took the ball and said, ‘I’m bringing this to Maurkice.’ That was big for our team.”

The Steelers are 7-5 in a very different way this year. In the past four weeks, they’ve scored 17, 7, 16 and 20 points, and they’re 3-1. “We manufacture wins,” Haden said. “We’ve got ballers on defense. When we go out there as a defense, we feel the energy of the crowd. We feel the love. They love defense in Pittsburgh. You know that’s the history. Right now, we’re playing as a legitimate team.”

With an undrafted rookie quarterback from Samford University. Last year, Devlin “Duck” Hodges, the 2018 Alabama state duck calling champion (honestly), was playing Shorter and Kennesaw State on his small campus in Birmingham. Now he’s enmeshed in the Steelers-Browns border war, and he’ll be charged with getting this underdog team to the playoffs, somehow. It’s such a great story. Imagine a January game with Duck Hodges at Tom Brady, or Duck Hodges at Patrick Mahomes. Really, Duck Hodges at Anybody.

“The Duck Caller is out there wingin’ it!” Haden said, laughing. “He’s winning—he’s throwing people open! We love it!”

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here