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Kevin Gorman: For Steelers, it’s about elephants and peanuts

December 3, 2017 GMT

Mike Tomlin isn’t one to send mixed messages, let alone subliminal ones, so the Steelers took their coach’s comments about the New England Patriots to heart.

Elephant in the room?

You bet. No doubt the Steelers have circled their calendars for the Patriots’ Dec. 17 visit, knowing the winner could clinch the top seed and home field for the AFC playoffs.

“I think we know it’s there in the back of our heads,” Steelers right guard David DeCastro said. “I think Coach Tomlin’s right to speak about it. It’s kind of the elephant in the room. But I always say every week, it’s the NFL.”

If the Patriots are the elephant, the Bengals and Ravens are just peanuts. Not that the Steelers are treating either of them with such disregard.

Before Tom Brady and Co. come to Heinz Field, the Steelers have to play their AFC North rivals. They play at Cincinnati on Monday, then have a short turnaround for the Ravens’ visit next Sunday. The Steelers have a three-game division lead over Baltimore and four games over the Bengals.

The notion that Tomlin was looking ahead by talking about the Patriots is a myth, just like elephants eating peanuts. Tomlin has been direct and to the point in his tenure with the Steelers. But his “elephant in the room” statement in a “Sunday Night Football” interview with Tony Dungy caused a stir.

“When they told me what Coach Tomlin said the other day,” center Maurkice Pouncey said, “it was like a shock, because he’s so routine: ‘This is who we play. This is what we’re going to do.’ ”

Safety Mike Mitchell said Tomlin was “locked in” during meetings before the game against the Green Bay Packers and the same for this week’s preparations for the Bengals.

“That’s two friends having a conversation,” Mitchell said of Tomlin and Dungy, one of his mentors. “Now, granted, Coach T probably needs to know that he’s being interviewed, but that’s two friends having a conversation and he said something. But what he said wasn’t wrong.”

Nor is this: The Steelers can afford to lose one of the next two division games and still win the AFC North but likely won’t be the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs if they lose to the Patriots.

Not that the Steelers are buying that scenario for a second. They swear they aren’t wired that way.

“If that was the case, we should’ve took a dive last week. The Green Bay game counted for nothing. It’s not an AFC game, and it wouldn’t have affected much in the sense of an overall record,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “These games ahead of us, Cincy and Baltimore, are more important until we get there. The Patriots game is more or less seeding. I think both of us will have our measuring sticks out that game, the Patriots and us. He simply acknowledged it.”

Where some see Tomlin talking about the Patriots as setting the Steelers up for a trap in the next two games, he was simply doing what his players can’t afford to do: looking at the big picture.

The Bengals game represents three points Tomlin stresses to his players: They want to win on the road and dominate the division and the conference.

“He always says the most important week is this week,” Foster said. “He always says the most important goal, other than winning the Super Bowl, is winning the AFC North.

“I’m glad he addressed it. If he’d ran away from it, I’d have thought differently of him. He said what he said, but what’s his No. 1 goal? His No. 1 goal is to win the AFC North.”

If the Steelers are ripe for a letdown at Cincinnati, it’s because they will be without cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Vance McDonald, that Mitchell is doubtful and, most of all, that All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown is questionable.

Not from the fallout of what Tomlin said, about the Patriots being the elephant in the room or anything else.

“There’s absolute truth to that,” Mitchell said. “The game, yes, means a lot, and you guys are going to be talking about it. I go home and watch NFL Live, and they’ve been talking about it for two weeks, this inevitable meeting. So how’s he wrong for that?”

Tomlin’s not, so long as the Steelers win at least one of the next two games. If not, he’s going to be second-guessed about the timing of talking about the Patriots more than he already has.

Of all the myths about elephants, this is the truth: They never forget.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.