It's been a rough few games for Big Ben and the Steelers, but that doesn't mean they won't be in the playoffs. Slow starts by the Steelers don't necessarily translate into slow finishes. (AP)

Come Sunday, the Steelers will at long last dress their team. They’ll roll out their true starters for the first time this season. A full deck rather than one missing face cards and relying on jokers wild.

Rashard Mendenhall is expected to cut and run for the first time since the first quarter on New Year’s Day, when he tore his ACL in the first quarter against the Browns in the regular-season finale.

The defense is expected to unfurl all of its starters for the first time in a calendar year. In October of 2011, Aaron Smith’s career-ending injury touched off a stretch of maladies and surgeries (seven) and games missed (38).

Not that good health will necessarily translate into instant success. Don’t expect Pittsburgh to dash off 13 consecutive regular-season victories and hop up the postseason stairway to a seventh Super Bowl.

That said, don’t count the Steelers out. A 10-6 finish or better -- and, yes, even a Super Bowl appearance -- is conceivable, if not downright doable.

“If your record is what dictated your urgency, you're in the wrong game,” safety Ryan Clark said this week, in advance of Sunday’s matchup with Philadelphia (3-1) at Heinz Field. “This is about the names on the helmets and also the names on your backs. . . .”

These are the Steelers. A 1-2 start isn’t deadly. It's rare for this franchise -- but definitely not conclusive. Mike Tomlin’s post-Super Bowl championship team lost two of its first three in 2009 and finished 9-7, though that wasn’t good enough for a return to the playoffs. Bill Cowher’s 2002 team started 0-2 and 1-3 and still reached the postseason, winning a wild card game over the Browns before being eliminated by the Titans. Bill Cowher's 2000 team opened 0-3 but finished 9-7, and his 1997 Steelers were 1-2 and finished 11-5 and made it to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

The fact the Steelers have consistently rebounded from slow starts to finish .500 or better is proof that those helmets and some of the names across the shoulders have weathered burdens and lifted their seasons from lost Septembers.

“We've been in this situation before, and it's been to the point where you can still control it,” offensive tackle Max Starks said. “It's the first quarter of the season. If -- capitalize ‘IF’ -- if [a 1-3 start] was to happen, it wouldn't be something that would be a complete sense of urgency to make sure 'Oh my God, we've got to circle the wagons, we've got to change all these things, we've got to change ourselves.' No, you've just got to grind it out. I look back to 2005. We were on a [three]-game losing streak that year.”

And after those three losses, they won eight consecutive games, including Super Bowl XL.
This season, they are coming off a pre-bye week loss to lowly Oakland in which they allowed 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. But the Steelers always seem to lose out west; they last won in Oakland during the Clinton Administration -- in 1995. In fact, they’ve lost four consecutive games in another time zone and, amazingly, 14 of their past 20 road games played in Central, Mountain or Pacific time.

Now that they are healthier, the Steelers will be starting six defensive players who are former Pro Bowlers -- all on the far side of age 30. They’re somewhere between experienced and grizzled.

So far this season, without James Harrison (knee) and Troy Polamalu (calf), two of the past four NFL Defensive Players of the Year, the Steelers have been picked apart by Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and, for one quarter, Mark Sanchez. That indicates that the presence of those players alongside LaMarr Woodley at book-end outside linebacker and Ryan Clark at safety is essential to the Steelers’ success. It shows that the full complement must be blitzing and harassing and causing turnovers for this team to win.

Can they still do that? Well, they went 12-4 last season with the fewest takeaways in franchise history, so being a year older shouldn’t be that big of a difference.

Mendenhall likely won’t make a sizeable offensive impact immediately, but his abilities should be a great fit in Todd Haley's offense. He’s the kind of back who can create rushing yards behind a lackluster offensive line.

The New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals are the only 2011 playoff teams left on the Steelers’ schedule. The Bengals constitute their major rival for a wild-card berth in an AFC where only four teams number more than two victories through the opening four weeks.

It’s October. It’s early. It’s too soon to consider the Steelers’ reeling through the year. When January rolls around, don’t be surprised if they’re playoff bound for a third consecutive season.

Follow Steelers reporter Chuck Finder on Twitter @CBSSteelers and @cfinder.