Playoffs begin now for struggling Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger was talking about another win slipping away. It only sounded like he was talking about his team's enigmatic season.
''We felt good,'' the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback said. ''We felt that we had it.''
Until, the Steelers didn't.
One Antonio Brown fumbled punt return and one fantastic interception by Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr on the second play of overtime and Pittsburgh had somehow turned a seven-point, fourth-quarter lead into a 27-24 loss.
''We know that's not Steeler football and that's not what we are capable of,'' Brown said. ''We've got to be better.''
Time's a wasting.
The Steelers (7-7), arguably the NFL's hottest team at the midway point, have dropped four of their last five, their worst stretch since a season-draining five-game slide in 2009 sent the then-defending Super Bowl champions tumbling out of the playoffs.
Things aren't quite as dire this time around. Wins over Cincinnati (8-6) and Cleveland (5-9) in the next two weeks and Pittsburgh will advance to the postseason for the third straight year. The Steelers have won 13 of the last 20 meetings in Pittsburgh with the Bengals and Cleveland has triumphed just twice in the Steel City since the franchise was reborn in 1999.
''I think we still have a chance to right our wrongs here,'' tight end Heath Miller said. ''We've got two games left. We just have to keeping chipping away at it.''
Something the Steelers have only done with intermittent success this fall. Pittsburgh started 2-3 before ripping off four straight wins, including a 24-20 win in New Jersey on Nov. 4 over the Giants that seemed to signal a return to dominance.
They never quite got there.
A sprained right shoulder and a dislocated rib to Roethlisberger on Nov. 12 blunted Pittsburgh's momentum and the Steelers have spent the last month squandering countless chances to become a major factor in a wide-open AFC.
Another loss and they won't even be a minor one.
''We understand where we are in this thing and the margin of error is zero,'' coach Mike Tomlin said.
While Roethlisberger, as is his custom, shouldered the blame for the loss, there was plenty to go around.
The battered secondary - which included former practice squad player Josh Victorian and second-year cornerback Curtis Brown seeing extended playing time - allowed Dallas quarterback Tony Romo to rack up 341 yards passing. The defense registered just one sack and recorded just one turnover and the running game continued to struggle. The trio of Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey managed just 67 yards on 15 carries, the fifth time in the last six games the Steelers failed to top 100 yards rushing.
Still, Pittsburgh appeared to be in control thanks to Roethlisberger. A month removed from a rib injury that threatened his aorta and a bum shoulder that made it difficult to handle his newborn son, Roethlisberger passed for 339 yards and two touchdowns while rallying Pittsburgh from deficits of 10-0 and 17-10 to take a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers defense held Dallas on four plays and Brown went out to try and give Pittsburgh solid field position to close it out. Brown was a Pro Bowler as a kick returner last year but has struggled with ball security at times. He was in the midst of a lengthy return when Cowboys linebacker Victor Butler prodded it free and Dallas recovered at the Pittsburgh 44.
The game was tied six plays later and the Steelers never threatened again. Two snaps into overtime Roethlisberger tried to hit Mike Wallace on an out pattern only to have Carr dive in front of it and return it the Pittsburgh 1.
Instead of heading home with another back-against-the-wall win, Pittsburgh has six days to recover from its fifth loss by a touchdown or less this year.
''We have no choice but to put it behind us,'' nose tackle Casey Hampton said. ''We control our own destiny. At the end of the day, that is all you can ask for.
''We just have to go back and try to get these next two.''
NOTES: The Steelers reinstated running back Rashard Mendenhall on Monday. Mendenhall was suspended for one game for conduct detrimental to the team. The Steelers received a roster exemption and will not have to make a corresponding move until Tuesday afternoon. Pittsburgh promoted RB Baron Batch last week to fill Mendenhall's spot. ... The Steelers are 2-2 in the AFC North so far with two games left.
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