OAKLAND – These games against this opponent, often these trips to play them here, have defined them, or at least revealed them. Sometimes they have been revealed for what they are, and other times for what they can become.
Pittsburgh-Oakland is an indelible part of the National Football League's history, both as a reminder of the brutality the sport often contains as well as for the level of play required of a team before it truly can be crowned a champion.
There was nothing as poetic or historically significant at stake this time around, but in the here-and-now, the 21-18 loss was disastrous for these Steelers.
It had been important for them to come here and defeat the Raiders, because they hadn't been capable of staying at home and beating the Tennessee Titans, and because they then compounded that by becoming the only team incapable of defeating the Minnesota Vikings, whether home, on the road, or abroad.
On the cross-country flight here, the Steelers were a 2-4 outfit burdened by the arithmetic of their record and yet somewhat on the rise as the winners of two in a row. The perception of them depended upon which half of that description was given more weight, with the outcome here tipping the balance.
This loss to the Raiders was the fourth in the last five meetings between one franchise that was incapable of putting together even a single winning season during that span and another that played in two Super Bowls and won one. Each of those Steelers' defeats to the Raiders can be explained based on the particular elements of the individual game, but each remains baffling as to the "why."
Last Sunday's snapped their modest two-game winning streak, it represented a step backward in some of the particular elements of their performance. But most critically, it sidetracked their quest to, as Mike Tomlin had said earlier in the week, "stay relevant" through the backstretch of every 16-game season.
It's difficult to make the case that the 2-5 Steelers currently are relevant within the pecking order of the AFC. The numbers can be twisted to tell a tale of a division race still up for grabs and a tiebreaker status still on life support by having had two of the losses come against NFC teams. But then there is this tale told by the numbers: there are only two AFC teams – Houston and Jacksonville – besides the Steelers yet to have three wins.
Against the Raiders, it almost appeared as though the Steelers didn't prepare at all for what quarterback Terrelle Pryor brings to the position. On a 93-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game that set a Raiders franchise record and set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, too many of the Steelers defenders either were faked out of position or couldn't get themselves into any kind of spot to make a play on the guy with the ball.
If that was the defense's signature breakdown, special teams had a punt blocked because Zoltan Mesko didn't handle a snap, and Shaun Suisham's streak of 14 straight field goals ended and a streak of two straight misses for him began. On offense, Ramon Foster, Guy Whimper, and David DeCastro all left with injuries, and the impact on that unit was what should have been expected.
During the week leading up to the game, Coach Mike Tomlin explained why he had devoted some meeting time to talking about the history of Steelers-Raiders.
"Part of what it is that we're doing here is having an appreciation of what was done before us by the men who walked in the shoes of the men who play here now, and not only those who played here but also those who played for the other side. They just need to have an understanding of what goes into the history of these two franchises and what made these two organizations what they are."
What happened here last Sunday doesn't deserve to be remembered with the same respect reserved for those epic battles during the 1970s, but it did live up to the level of revealing the 2013 Steelers for what they are today.
A team that has developed a habit of finding ways to lose.
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