KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Whatever was left of the Pittsburgh Steelers' flickering playoff hopes likely evaporated on an unseasonably warm night inside Arrowhead Stadium. That optimism wafted away in the midst of bonehead mistakes, a feeble offense and an inability to rise to the occasion in such a critical moment. This was the type of game when the Steelers could've changed the perception about their decline. Instead, they reminded everybody who watched that the best days for this storied franchise have long since passed.
The only questions left to be asked about the Steelers after Sunday's 36-10 loss to Kansas City involve the future. Pittsburgh is still mathematically alive for a postseason bid, but there's no reason to sort through all the scenarios that would allow it to qualify. The Chiefs so thoroughly dominated Pittsburgh that it was hard to wonder how the Steelers had remained in contention this long. This game was about one team surging at the right time of year and another bottoming out at breakneck speed.
The Steelers are a proud franchise, of that there is no doubt. They're also 7-7-1 with four losses in their last six games that have all been comparable to Sunday's loss in one way: The Steelers have fallen behind by wide margins early and created the sense that they simply weren't able to hang with better teams.
"We do need to play a lot better football," Pittsburgh outside linebacker T.J. Watt said after Sunday's loss. "It's pretty obvious that we're not getting it done."
To understand how bad the Steelers have been lately -- specifically on the road -- just consider what's happened in those last four defeats. They trailed the Chargers (27-10), the Bengals (41-3) and the Vikings (29-0) in a manner you just don't see from competent NFL teams. Pittsburgh did manage to rally in losses to both the Chargers and Vikings, eventually falling 41-37 and 36-28, respectively. They couldn't create any type of real comeback magic in the other contests, which speaks to how frail this team actually is.
Sunday's loss followed a similar narrative. The Chiefs scored a touchdown on their opening drive. They intercepted Ben Roethlisberger on Pittsburgh's ensuing possession. The score was 30-0 midway through the third quarter, and it felt like it should've been even worse. The Steelers finished the game with three turnovers and one resulted from wide receiver Diontae Johnson dropping the football while running after nobody actually touched him (Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu recovered that fumble).
This isn't a matter of coaching, because Pittsburgh has one of the best in the business in Mike Tomlin. It's a combination of factors, from Roethlisberger's eroding skills to a limited offensive line to a defense that is no longer strong enough to compensate for issues on the other side of the ball.
"It's just execution," said Steelers running back Najee Harris when asked about his team's slow starts. "It would be kind of dumb to blame it on everything else other than us. It's about time we point at ourselves instead of other X-factors. It's something we have to get together as a team. It doesn't have to do with anybody else, but we have to find a way to execute."
Pittsburgh finds itself in an especially troubling dilemma because this isn't merely about what's happening this season. It's about the state of the AFC North for years to come. The Cincinnati Bengals have pushed their way into first place in the division, and they're excited about the future with second-year quarterback Joe Burrow. The Baltimore Ravens still have an impressive roster when they aren't ravaged by injuries, and the Cleveland Browns are a quarterback away from being a true championship contender.
The Steelers can talk about what they can still do in the final two weeks of the regular season. What they have to accept is that they're not in a position where they can intimidate anybody in that division any longer. This is a team trying to hold onto something, to live up to the legacy that has been built within that franchise. What it's learning is that it's hard to move forward if all the right pieces aren't in place.
It's clear that Roethlisberger is no longer the quarterback who can take this team to great heights. He's still savvy and crafty, but he can't dominate defenses any longer. The offensive line, long a staple within this franchise, also needs to get stabilized as soon as possible. Pittsburgh is always at its best when the trenches are strong. This team gets bullied too often up front on offense, as was the case once again in Kansas City.
As for attitude, you have to at least appreciate the mindset coming out of this blowout loss. When asked about a remedy for the slow starts, Roethlisberger said, "If I had an answer, I would've done everything I could to get it fixed. We have two games left but none are more important than the next, so we'll do whatever we can to get it fixed."
Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward added, "Excuse my language, but I'm not accepting s---. We got a lot of football left to play. A lot will be said in these last two games. I know it wasn't perfect today. And it breaks my heart to let our fans down and go out like that, but we have a lot of football left and two games left to see where we can fall."
The problem is that those two remaining games -- against the Browns and Ravens -- aren't going to tell us anything we don't already know about this Pittsburgh team. A couple wins would make the Steelers feel better about life. Such victories might even get them thinking about what could happen if other teams fall apart down the stretch. That kind of success could also be more debilitating to the Steelers in the long run, by making them ponder what might have been if they'd gotten a few more breaks along the way.
The Steelers don't need to accept losing. They simply must accept the need to drastically change their current state. That should be the ultimate takeaway from what happened in Sunday's rout. That's because the Steelers got an intimate view of what a championship contender looks like while also learning how far away they are from actually being one.