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Playoffs or played out? Steelers need a lot of help

PITTSBURGH -- Win at Miami on Sunday, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are ...

In? Not quite.

Out? Maybe not.

In limbo for a few hours? Possibly.

Done playing meaningful games until September? Very likely.

By inexplicably losing to the Browns, Chiefs and Raiders in a span of 19 days, the Super Bowl champions put themselves in such a precarious position that winning their final three games might not be enough to get them into the AFC playoffs.

Two teams with 9-7 records are likely to reach the AFC postseason -- a year after the Patriots didn't make it by going 11-5 -- but the Steelers (8-7) can beat the Dolphins (7-8) and still not get there.

Who's to the blame? The Steelers need only look in the mirror.

"It's us that are losing these games," wide receiver Santonio Holmes said. "There is no one else outside of what goes on in this organization that are losing these ballgames."

The Steelers have won their last two, beating Green Bay 37-36 and Baltimore 23-20, but it didn't clear a path to the AFC playoffs because of the five-game losing streak from Nov. 15-Dec. 10 that included defeats to the Chiefs (3-12), Browns (4-11) and Raiders (5-10).

"We put ourselves in the situation, but we just have to go into Miami and take care of business," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "The only thing you can control is what you can control, and that's the last games you have."

If the Steelers had beaten the three sub-.500 teams, they'd be 11-4 and cruising into the playoffs, possibly as the AFC's No. 2 seed. Instead, three of the most inexplicable losses in franchise history created the most complicated route to the playoffs the Steelers have faced since 1989.

Then, they needed to win at Tampa Bay during the final week of the season and have four teams from a pack of five lose. That's exactly what happened, and the Steelers got in.

This time, there are only three Steelers paths to the postseason:

» Beat Miami, plus losses or ties by the Texans against the Patriots (10-5) in Houston and the Jets (8-7) against the Bengals (10-5) at Giants Stadium.

» Beat Miami, plus losses or ties by the Texans against the Patriots and the Ravens (8-7) against the Raiders in Oakland.

» Beat Miami, plus losses or ties by the Jets against the Bengals, the Ravens against the Raiders and the Broncos (8-7) against the Chiefs in Denver.

That's it. Unless any of those scenarios play out, the Steelers will miss the playoffs for only the third time since 2000. The Jets and the Ravens are the only AFC contenders assured of reaching the playoffs simply by winning Sunday.

The Steelers most need the Texans to lose to the Patriots, but it's not certain what New England team will show up in Houston.

The Patriots must play a wild-card game the following weekend whether they win or lose and, with a possible short week ahead of them, they may not risk playing Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and their other starters the entire game.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday that his decision will be "what's best for the football team" -- even, of course, if it's not the best decision for the Steelers and the other contenders.

Pro Bowl
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Host Rich Eisen, alongside seven-time
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The Steelers understand the risk of playing key regulars in such games, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received a concussion while playing during a meaningless, regular season-ending game against Cleveland last year. He returned to lead Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl victory, but he benefited from a bye week that New England won't enjoy this season.

Pittsburgh's path became far more circuitous Sunday when the Colts benched their regulars late in the third quarter, and the Jets rallied against Indianapolis backups to win 29-15. As a result, the only scenario that gets Pittsburgh into the playoffs without a Jets loss is for both Houston and Baltimore to lose or tie.

And there's this -- even if the dominos fall and the Steelers somehow make it in, they're staring at a wild-card game Jan. 9-10 at New England, which is 8-0 at home this season.

If the Steelers don't get in, it will be the third consecutive time they failed to reach the playoffs the season after winning the Super Bowl. It also happened in 1980 and 2006.

"It would be very disappointing (not to make it)," linebacker James Farrior said. "That's everybody's goal, to try to get into this dance and do some damage."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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