A win for either team on Monday night could go a long way toward determining which club is headed in that direction.
Pittsburgh and San Francisco each look to win consecutive games for the first time this season when they meet at Candlestick Park.
The Steelers began this season as the favorite to win the AFC North, and started the year with two wins in their first three games. However, they went on to lose their next five contests.
Pittsburgh snapped that skid last Sunday with a 28-15 home victory over the Arizona Cardinals, avoiding a 2-7 record that would have been its worst after nine games since it was 1-8 in 1969.
“It’s been so long, I don’t know how anyone knew how to feel,” said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, whose team hadn’t won since beating Cincinnati on Sept. 21. “But we’re not eliminated by any stretch of the imagination.”
The Steelers are three games under .500, but have a chance in the mediocre AFC North. The division-leading Baltimore Ravens lost to the St. Louis Rams last week, and own just a two-game lead over Pittsburgh.
“We’re still playing a single game of elimination,” Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. “We can’t rely on 9-7 to get there, we know 10-6 will get it done. That’s the hand we dealt ourselves, now we have to play it.”
Cowher thinks the Steelers still have a shot, though no NFL team has recovered from a 2-6 start to make the playoffs during a 16-game season.
“We realize the situation with us, that we are playing a team that is 4-5,” Cowher said. “San Francisco is a storied franchise. For us, we are in the process of trying to do something that nobody else in this league has done. It is not going to be easy. This is the next step along the way.”
The Niners are returning from their bye week, but will probably still be without injured quarterback Jeff Garcia.
The three-time Pro Bowler missed his first start in 62 games in the Niners’ 30-10 win over the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 2 because of a partially torn ligament around his sprained left ankle.
“Jeff is questionable for this week and we’ll play that by ear as the week goes on,” Niners coach Dennis Erickson said Monday. “Again, it’s like I said last week, unless he is 100 percent and we feel that he is 100 percent, Tim (Rattay) will be the starter.”
Rattay, in his fourth pro season, threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Rams, his first NFL start.
Garcia knows his team’s season is on the line, but has confidence in Rattay as San Francisco tries to become the 13th team since 1990 to make the playoffs after posting a sub-.500 record through nine games.
“I’m sure there’s some doubt right now,” Garcia said. “I can’t say for sure I’ll be ready to go. It was great to see Tim play, and know that there’s another guy in this locker room that can lead this team.”
The 49ers have a 9-8 lead in the all-time series with the Steelers, but Pittsburgh has won three of the last four meetings and four of five in San Francisco.