Hines Ward says one more loss might be too many. At the locker stall next to him, Deshea Townsend says just one victory might be exactly what the slumping Pittsburgh Steelers need.
A few lockers down, Ryan Clark notices the lack of panic among the Steelers (6-5) despite a three-game losing streak that includes successive overtime losses, one to the mediocre Kansas City Chiefs (3-8).
The Steelers are flirting with becoming the first team to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl – since they themselves did it three years ago. That’s not an envious distinction, yet there’s no sense in their dressing room that their season has escaped them.
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They weren’t very good in November (1-3), yet they still expect to play in January.
Maybe it’s because they’ve been in situations like this before. In 2005, they needed to win their final four to make the playoffs and they ended up winning the Super Bowl.
Maybe it’s because their schedule is so forgiving, with the Raiders (3-8) up next on Sunday and the Browns (1-10) four days later. Three of their final five games are at Heinz Field, where they have won 10 of their last 11.
Or perhaps it’s because the Steelers are accustomed to closing with a rush. They won six of their final seven last year, four of their final five in 2006 and those final four in 2005.
No matter what it is, linebacker James Farrior insists the Steelers remain a confident and close team, despite rumblings they were divided over whether quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) should have sat out Sunday night in Baltimore.
“This locker room is tight; we’re a close-knit group,” Farrior said. “Everybody is in it to win it. We’re all in it for the same thing. We’re just going to try to move forward.”
They’ve been in reverse since mid-November, losing to the first-place Bengals (8-3) at home before overtime losses at Kansas City (27-24) and Baltimore (20-17). They’ve gone from 6-2 and in position to seize the AFC North lead if they had defeated Cincinnati to virtually being out of the division race.
However, an AFC wild card would seem to be there for the Steelers – their remaining opponents own a .400 winning percentage – and they could go from 6-5 to 8-5 in a matter of five days if they beat two teams with a combined record of 4-18.
“Think about it,” nose tackle Chris Hoke said. “(In 2005), we were 7-2, lost three in a row, went to 7-5; this year we were 6-2, lost three in a row and went to 6-5. Quite similar situations, so we know it can be done. We know we can get back on track and start winning these next five games and get on a roll. It’s a very similar group; we got the same group of core guys.”
Still, the Steelers don’t have much margin for error; a second loss to the Ravens (6-5) in their Dec. 27 rematch at Pittsburgh might doom their season given that both division rivals could be playing for the same wild-card spot.
The Steelers‘ key veterans have been together so long – 11 starters, plus kicker Jeff Reed, also played on their 2005 Super Bowl-winning team – that they realize there’s no reason to give up on the season, according to Clark.
“Some teams, you look for that guy you always put out in front and put him on TV and let him say, ‘So-and-so gave a big speech in the locker room and it changed what everybody was doing. Everybody kicked in,”‘ Clark said. “That’s only on TV. That’s not reality. That’s not the NFL, at least on good teams. Nobody here is going to sit down and hold a players-only meeting. I’m not knocking the guys that do that. Here, we don’t need that. Guys pull their own.”
The Steelers also aren’t pointing fingers at each other, Clark said, because there isn’t a single position coach who believes his players are doing the job right now. Any player looking for someone to blame needs only to look in the mirror.
“The coaches are giving that speech in every room,” Clark said. “They (all position groups) heard they’re the reason we’re not winning right now.”
The Steelers must get by for a third consecutive game without safety Troy Polamalu (left knee), who could miss the Browns game as well. What they can’t do is wait for their defensive star to return before they resume winning.
“All we can control is what we do moving forward. I think we’ve got a great deal of resolve with this group,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ve got a group that doesn’t blink in the face of adversity. Really, it’s kind of a business-as-usual mentality right now.”