PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers entered a must-win game, a layup against the woeful Oakland Raiders, embroiled in a mini-controversy stirred by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sitting out last week's loss to Baltimore with concussion-related symptoms.
Well, the defending Super Bowl champions have a much larger headache to deal with now after losing to the injury-depleted and now four-win Raiders (4-8), who, if you can believe it, are just two games worse than the Steelers (6-6).
It was Pittsburgh's fourth consecutive loss and second in three weeks to a bottom-feeder in the AFC West (Kansas City defeated the Steelers 27-24 in overtime).
What's the old saying? If you can't convert on fourth and inches, you don't deserve to win anyway? Well, if you're supposed to be a championship contender again and you can't beat Kansas City and Oakland -- the Raiders on your home field after your coach said the team would "unleash hell" in December -- then you don't belong in the postseason.
Or, maybe hell has frozen over.
These Steelers aren't going to the playoffs unless hell thaws, they find a glass slipper, and five or six other teams hit a bad stretch like Pittsburgh's. Losing four in a row is a lot easier than winning four in a row -- especially since the final quarter of the schedule includes Cleveland, Green Bay, Baltimore and Miami. Less than a month ago, that schedule, as well as games against the Chiefs, the then-reeling Ravens and Oakland, were supposed to be gimmes.
Now, it looks like climbing up a hill of ice wearing roller skates. Cincinnati further solidified its grip on the AFC North. Denver, Baltimore, Miami, the New York Jets, and Jacksonville seem like much more viable wild-card contenders than Pittsburgh.
It kicks too many field goals and boasts a defense that no longer can be relied upon. Yep, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, James Farrior, and the rest of the unit haven't gotten the job done.
During this four-game losing streak, Cincinnati staged an 11-play drive to close things off with a field goal after running off a nine-play drive to kick a go-ahead field goal. Kansas City scored a touchdown after an eight-play, 91-yard drive to force overtime, which it won on a Ryan Succup field goal.
Baltimore, the game in which Dennis Dixon started for Roethlisberger, kicked a field goal with 1:51 remaining to force overtime, where it also sent the Steelers reeling. Oakland, behind quarterback Bruce Gradkowski (why did it take so long to start him?) drove 10 plays in 1:47 to score on an 11-yard touchdown pass to rookie Louis Murphy with nine seconds remaining.
If the Steelers can't get it done in crunch time of the regular season, why would anyone think they can get it done in the postseason?
"The party was getting ready to get started," Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes said, regarding the premature thoughts of grandeur after Pittsburgh went up 24-20 on a perfectly executed 11-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Hines Ward with 1:56 remaining. "That's how we felt knowing that the offense went down and did our job. We left everything to our defense. A couple of mishaps here and there, and they won the ball game. It was unacceptable by us as a team."
Added Big Ben: "I never talk about the defense, no matter if they had a great game or not. I don't play on that side of the ball. Nobody is going to come out pointing fingers. I had defensive players come up and apologize to me. I said there is no reason to apologize. We win and lose as a team."
The problem with the Steelers defense is on the back end. Safety Troy Polamalu has missed seven games, including his third straight on Sunday because of a sprained knee, and the Steelers have won just once without him. Cornerback Joe Burnett dropped an errant Gradkowski pass that hit him square in the hands, uncontested. There are drops and then there are plays that are made to win games.
Last season, Pittsburgh won four games by four points or less -- two against the Ravens -- and it stunned Dallas 20-13 with a late defensive score. Only Pittsburgh's season-opening 13-10 victory over Tennessee this season has been a game it had to survive. Its other five victories have been by eight points or more.
Though Burnett failed on the latter count, he hardly could be blamed for the widespread failures of the secondary.
Raiders coach Tom Cable told me Friday -- and reinforced his projections after they proved true -- that his crew of wide receivers, Murphy, Chaz Schilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins had a decisive matchup edge over the Steelers' corners. When he said that, I initially thought it was bluster, especially since Pittsburgh gets enough pressure up front to create opportunities for those guys to make plays on any group of receivers, let alone the unheralded bunch from Oakland.
Then I noticed that no Steelers cornerback had an interception all season. Cable went on to say that a key reason why Gradkowski is now the starter over JaMarcus Russell, is because Gradkowski will throw the ball down field. Russell was fixated on the short-yardage receivers, which hindered the offense.
Gradkowski, who is from Pittsburgh, threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns. Murphy, a fourth-round draft pick, had 128 yards on four receptions, the winning catch and a 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Raiders a 20-17 lead they would quickly surrender.
"We had appropriate pressure on them at times," Tomlin started. "Particularly on that last drive. They were in max protection mode. They had quite a few guys in there from a protection standpoint and when you do that, they're going to get time to deliver the football. That also means they have a limited number of options down the field. Those limited options were still able and capable of making plays."
Tomlin stood on a wall in the locker room after the game, watching how his players reacted and how they dealt with postgame interviews. It was interesting, especially when it would be safe to assume that such a proud group of players would be as crestfallen and upset as they were. Maybe he was wondering where some of the anger and frustration was when the game was being played.
The team's mindset might be a little unfocused, which happens to teams a season after they play in the Super Bowl. Yet things could be much less complicated on the surface, although still difficult to remedy.
If it's not decisive, Pittsburgh isn't winning.
As most players said last week, the Steelers have to win out to have a chance to defend their title. Roethlisberger shrugged his shoulders when he was asked his thoughts and simply said that's been the case for weeks.
If that's been the case for weeks, then the Steelers seem to realize their own mortality. They won't lay down over the final four games, as they haven't during this tailspin. That could be just as troubling as if they had.