When they were 0-3, and the question in Pittsburgh was if they could match last season's six wins, the Steelers couldn't possibly have expected this.

Namely, going into their final game of the season with a realistic chance of making the playoffs.

It will take a myriad of events for the Steelers (8-7) to sneak into the playoffs as the AFC's sixth seed, even if they win their Christmas Eve game at San Diego (1-14).

The New York Jets (9-6), who play at Baltimore (11-4), must lose their third in a row and the Indianapolis Colts (9-6) must lose at home to the Minnesota Vikings (11-4).

Still, the Steelers' situation is much better than it was last weekend, when they had to beat the Redskins -- which they did 24-3 -- and the Jets had to lose to the Lions to prevent Pittsburgh from being eliminated.

The Steelers also needed Jacksonville to lose at least one in its final two games, which occurred when the Jaguars lost Sunday at Cincinnati.

Only a week ago, Pittsburgh's chances seemed so bleak that they weren't mentioned on the NFL-issued list of playoff possibilities.

"We are aware that two of the four things that needed to happen occurred, and now we have to take care of business," coach Bill Cowher said Monday. "The players understand that.

"We recognize what's at stake."

That's everything -- or, possibly, nothing.

If the Jets lose at Baltimore, the Steelers will be rooting for the Vikings to beat the Colts at the same time Sunday they are playing in San Diego.

Cowher has even considered asking the Chargers not to post the Vikings-Colts running score on the Qualcomm Stadium scoreboard so as not to distract his players.

Of course, since it might benefit the 1-14 Chargers if it turns out the Steelers have nothing to play for, he probably shouldn't expect that to happen.

"What we've got to control is what we control," Cowher said, meaning the game in San Diego -- not the games in Baltimore or Indianapolis.

After all, they've already learned the dangers of letting others decide their fate.

Three times this season, the NFL has apologized for officiating mistakes that might have cost the Steelers victories.

The NFL determined the Eagles should have been penalized on a momentum-swinging onside kick recovery late in a 26-23 victory at Pittsburgh on Nov. 12.

On Sept. 17, officials started the clock too fast in the final seconds of a 23-20 Steelers loss at Cleveland, preventing a potential game-tying field goal attempt.

A week after that, the Steelers lost a time out on an unsuccessful play challenge the league determined should have been upheld.

They went on to lose 23-20 to Tennessee as Kris Brown missed a hurried 50-yard field goal attempt on the final play.

Cowher isn't predicting how well his Steelers will do if they somehow make their way into the playoffs, but he likes how they have played in winning eight of 12 since that 0-3 start.

"We've come back with a sense of urgency and I like where we're at right now," Cowher said. "I really hope I'm here next Monday, working on Christmas Day.

"I don't think anybody here would have any problems with that."

By Alan Robinson