Barely a month ago, the Steelers were 6-2 after winning five in a row -- beating the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos -- and were well positioned not only to win the AFC North but to take another run at a Super Bowl title. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was enjoying a career year statistically, the defense was as nasty as ever and the team had the look and attitude of a champion.
Then, somehow, it all got away from the Steelers. Blame it on Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith being hurt. Blame it on a delayed Super Bowl hangover, blame it on overconfidence, blame it on a lack of preparation, blame it on an inability to close out close games. Right now, there's a whole lot of blame to go around in Pittsburgh.
To wide receiver Hines Ward, the collapse is "embarrassing." To Roethlisberger, it's "disappointing." Safety Ryan Clark calls it "despicable, sad." Most of the Steelers call it baffling, because none of them saw it coming.
"We're better than that," Ward said following the Steelers' 13-6 road loss to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night. "We should play better than that. I can't pinpoint why we are losing. We all have a hand in it."
Only one other Super Bowl champion lost five games in a row the following season, and the 1987 Giants deserve an asterisk because they used replacement players during part of that strike-interrupted season.
What most troubles the Steelers is who is beating them.
A year ago, the Steelers survived one of the toughest schedules in NFL history to win their sixth Super Bowl, facing the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Ravens (twice), Chargers, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans during the season.
The Browns were last in the NFL in total defense and played Thursday night without five injured starters -- in essence, they used their replacement team -- yet they held the Steelers without a touchdown and sacked Roethlisberger eight times.
Back when the Steelers were 6-2, the games against the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns looked to be springboards to a high seeding in the AFC playoffs. Instead, they have caused Pittsburgh's season to unravel.
As a result, the Steelers will play out the string in December for the first time since 2003. Even in 2006, when the reigning Super Bowl champions started 2-6, they won six of their final eight games to make a late run at the playoffs.
These Steelers could win out by beating the Green Bay Packers, Ravens and Miami Dolphins to finish 9-7, yet that probably wouldn't be enough to make the playoffs, given Pittsburgh's 1-4 division and 4-6 conference records, which factor into tiebreakers.
"People are going to question what has happened to this team, and I really can't say," 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."
The Steelers experienced several late-season collapses like this during the midpoint of former coach Bill Cowher's career. After reaching the AFC Championship Game three times in a four-season span, the Steelers went 7-9 in 1998 after starting 7-4 and 6-10 in 1999 after being 5-3. However, they rebounded to go 13-3 in 2001 and 10-5-1 in 2002.
Now, Cowher's successor is involved in his first crisis in his three seasons as coach, one that seems likely to result in changes in personnel, his coaching staff and, perhaps, philosophy. Tomlin promised changes before the Browns game yet made very few; perhaps he's waiting for the offseason -- and it will be here soon enough -- to make them.
Figuring why the Steelers give up so many long kick returns would be a good start. They have allowed four kickoff-return touchdowns, compared to 10 by the other 31 NFL teams combined.
First, though, there are three games to play -- three games that, only a few weeks ago, seemed likely to determine whether this would be a good Steelers season or a great one. Instead, they are three games the Steelers can't wait to finish, if only because the season can't end until they're played.
"We, as a group, have to come together and continue to go out and fight these last three games," Ward said.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press