It's been more than a month since the Pittsburgh Steelers resembled a Super Bowl champion, losing to some of the NFL's worst teams. Now they must knock off one of the hottest just to maintain a reasonable chance at making the playoffs.
The Steelers will try to avoid their first six-game losing streak in 10 years Sunday when they host the surging Green Bay Packers.
A five-game win streak featuring victories over San Diego, Minnesota and Denver appeared to show Pittsburgh would very much be in contention for a second consecutive Super Bowl title.
Instead, the Steelers (6-7) have followed that stretch with a stunning five-game slide that has included losses to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland - teams with a combined 9-30 record. They fell 13-6 to the AFC-worst Browns on Dec. 10, four days after allowing a touchdown with nine seconds to play in a 27-24 loss to the Raiders.
The surprising collapse has knocked the Steelers out of the AFC North race and has them battling seven teams for a wild-card berth.
Even if Pittsburgh performs a late turnaround by winning its remaining three games, the playoffs remain a longshot because the team is 4-6 in conference play - a potentially important tiebreaker. All nine AFC teams that aren't below .500 own better conference records.
"People are going to question what has happened to this team, and I really can't say," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "I don't know. You are going to find out a lot about this team in the last three games. We will figure out who is going to quit and who is going to go out and continue to fight.
"We, as a group, have to come together and continue to go out and fight these last three games."
Those games are all against playoff contenders, as the Steelers host Green Bay and Baltimore before ending the regular season at Miami on Jan. 3.
They've also claimed a dubious distinction, as only the second Super Bowl champion to drop five in a row the following season. The 1987 New York Giants used replacement players during part of that strike-interrupted season.
The Steelers haven't lost six in a row since Nov. 14-Dec. 18, 1999. They're 1-7 in games decided by seven points or fewer after going 7-2 in those contests last season, including the Super Bowl.
"In this league, there's a very fine line between winning and losing," coach Mike Tomlin said. "The line is not so fine when you're playing dominant ... But when you're not playing dominant, we've got to find a way to make significant plays at correct moments."
Protecting Ben Roethlisberger could help. He was sacked a season-high eight times by the Browns while completing 18 of 32 passes for 201 yards.
Roethlisberger has been sacked 38 times, among the most in the league.
Pittsburgh's offensive line now has to deal with a key injury, as left guard Chris Kemoeatu will sit out the Green Bay game with right wrist and right knee injuries.
Injuries have been a burden all season, and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu will miss a fifth consecutive game with a knee problem. He's played three games this season - all wins.
The Packers (9-4) have won five in a row, including last week's 21-14 victory at Chicago, to move atop the NFC wild-card race. They could clinch a playoff berth with a win Sunday.
"Seriously, we are focused on beating the Pittsburgh Steelers and getting to 10 wins," coach Mike McCarthy said. "There are three games left. There are a lot of things that happen in the last three weeks of the season. The scenarios will change; they always do. Everybody is fighting to get in and that's the type of game we are preparing for this week."
Part of Green Bay's success has come from keeping opponents away from Aaron Rodgers and improved play defensively.
Fourth in the NFL with a 102.5 passer rating, Rodgers has been sacked a league-high 47 times, but just four over the last three games.
On defense, Green Bay now has the top-ranked unit in the NFC, allowing 272.0 yards per game after holding Chicago to 254. The Packers have allowed an average of 14.2 points during their win streak.
They've also forced 33 turnovers, including nine interceptions over the last three games, to rank second in the league behind New Orleans.
The Steelers have won the last two meetings, 20-10 at Green Bay in 2005 and 27-20 at Pittsburgh in 1998.