Depleted Steelers deal with inexplicable loss, uncertain future

PITTSBURGH -- Maybe the Steelers should have seen this one coming. Somehow, they didn't.

They didn't believe they could lose to the rebuilding Kansas City Chiefs, not one week after a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals seriously hurt the Steelers' chances of repeating as AFC North champions. That confidence -- or maybe overconfidence -- going into Kansas City was very evident.

The Steelers promised to be prepared, and their coach all but said they weren't. They promised to correct their special-teams problems, and they didn't. They promised one loss wouldn't ruin their season, yet they suffered an even-worse defeat to a team that seemed totally surprised to have beaten the Super Bowl champions.

"I take responsibility for that performance," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in a candid admission following the 27-24 overtime loss to the Chiefs. "I have to have this football team better prepared. ... We are capable of much more than that, and that is not us. It won't be us."

Experienced and upset-wary, the Steelers (6-4) pride themselves on not losing games like this. They did, and the amount of time devoted to damage control before Sunday's division game at Baltimore (5-5) could be considerable.

Worse still were the losses within the loss: left guard Chris Kemoeatu, out at least a couple of weeks with a sprained knee ligament, and backup quarterback Charlie Batch, out for possibly for the rest of the regular season with a left wrist injury. Batch will have surgery later this week, a league source told NFL Network's Jason La Canfora.

Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also couldn't finish after a knee to his head left him with a possible concussion. The good news: La Canfora reports that Roethlisberger is expected to play against the Ravens on Sunday, despite the injury.

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Losing to the Bengals? The Steelers had a difficult enough time accepting that. Losing to the Chiefs? It's unlikely a single player inside Pittsburgh's locker room truly believed that might happen.

"We can't let this game bring us down," Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.

Oh, but it did, in a loss similar to their 20-13 defeat at Oakland in 2006, the last previous season the Steelers were coming off a Super Bowl victory.

Much like that game, Pittsburgh had a huge advantage in yardage (515-282) and almost every statistic edge against Kansas City (3-7) yet somehow lost. A team-record fourth kickoff-return touchdown allowed -- in the Steelers' last five games, no less -- didn't help.

"This was one of those games where you scratch your head and say, 'How did we get here?'" Pittsburgh right tackle Willie Colon said.

Not long after the most puzzling loss in Tomlin's three seasons on the job, the first-place Bengals (7-3) gave the Steelers a gift by allowing 10 points in the final minute and losing to the Raiders 20-17. But the Steelers still must make up what effectively is a two-game deficit over the final six weeks if they are to win the AFC North because they lost to Cincinnati twice. Merely tying the Bengals won't do the job.

Even if the Bengals collapse and the Steelers don't need a wild-card berth to reach the postseason, the loss could hurt Pittsburgh's playoff seeding. Six AFC teams currently own a better conference record than the Steelers' 4-3.

The immediate problem going into Sunday's showdown at Baltimore is figuring out where the Steelers are at quarterback. A backup must be signed, and Roethlisberger -- if he has a concussion -- must pass the tests given any player with the injury before he can play again.

The Steelers also are expected to be without star safety Troy Polamalu (left knee), who could miss several more games, and Kemoeatu, one of their most dependable offensive linemen.

Three years ago, Roethlisberger played in that unthinkable loss to Oakland one week after sustaining a concussion in Atlanta. He responded with one of the worst games of his career, throwing four interceptions -- two returned for touchdowns.

If Roethlisberger has a concussion now, it would be at least his fourth since his June 2006 motorcycle accident. He also received one in a Dec. 28 game against the Cleveland Browns, though he returned to lead the Steelers to three playoff victories and the Super Bowl championship.

Roethlisberger passed all the post-concussion tests needed to play in that 2006 game in Oakland, yet he clearly wasn't himself. Right now, it's the Steelers who aren't playing like themselves, one year after they took on one of the NFL's toughest schedules and still won the Super Bowl.

"We've got to continue to press on," running back Mewelde Moore said. "It's not the time to get down or gripe. We've got to correct our mistakes and be professionals. We've got a bunch of guys who will fight."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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