The Pittsburgh Steelers are the last team to miss the playoffs after winning the previous Super Bowl. If they don't find a way to right their ship quickly, they may be headed down the same path once again.
The expected return of their quarterback should help.
Ben Roethlisberger's absence last week due to a concussion stirred up some locker room controversy, but he's likely to be back under center Sunday as the Steelers look to avoid their first four-game losing streak in five years when they host the hapless Oakland Raiders.
Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL in February 2006, but finished 8-8 the following regular season, missing out on the playoffs in coach Bill Cowher's final year.
It took Mike Tomlin just two seasons to lead Pittsburgh (6-5) to a Super Bowl, but his 2009 club seems to be dealing with a similar hangover - something receiver Hines Ward cautioned wouldn't happen during training camp.
"It's different this time,'' Ward said. "Coach Tomlin, he won't let us have a down year.''
Pittsburgh has lost three straight since a 6-2 start, and its third-ranked defense has blown fourth-quarter leads en route to consecutive overtime losses. The Steelers let Kansas City drive 91 yards to a tying touchdown Nov. 22 in a game the Chiefs won 27-24 in overtime.
Then last Sunday night in Baltimore, after backup quarterback Dennis Dixon had given Pittsburgh a lead, the defense allowed the Ravens to march 84 yards for a tying field goal before winning 20-17 in the extra session.
With Cincinnati holding a two-game lead plus the head-to-head edge in the AFC North, Pittsburgh's hopes of repeating as division champions are all but gone. The Steelers are one of seven AFC teams either one game above or below .500 fighting for the conference's final wild-card berth.
"We will not go gently,'' Tomlin said. "We will unleash hell in December because we have to. We won't go in a shell. We'll go into attack mode, because that's what's required.''
Tomlin's primary concern may be restoring harmony to his locker room. Ward suggested during a televised pregame interview that the Steelers were split 50-50 whether Roethlisberger should play in Baltimore despite suffering the fourth concussion of his career in Kansas City.
Ward apologized this week, saying he didn't mean to create an unnecessary distraction.
"I just think we need to get that taste of winning back," said Ward, tied for sixth in the league in receptions (66) and seventh in yards (845). "In the course of losing three games in a row, we just need to get back on a winning track. Winning solves everything.''
Roethlisberger practiced fully Wednesday and is expected to face the Raiders (3-8), though he was expected to play against the Ravens until the team changed course late last week.
All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, meanwhile, is likely to miss a third straight game with a sprained PCL in his left knee after sitting out four games earlier because of a sprained MCL. The Steelers are 4-1 when he plays.
Though Pittsburgh's secondary has struggled without him, it doesn't figure to have much trouble stopping Oakland's league-worst passing offense (146.4 yards per game).
The Raiders have moved the ball somewhat better through the air since benching JaMarcus Russell for Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski. Gradkowski threw for 183 yards and two touchdowns to lead Oakland to a 20-17 upset of Cincinnati on Nov. 22, then had 200 yards and a TD to rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day.
Oakland's defense, however, gave up a season-high 494 yards in the 24-7 loss to the Cowboys.
"Trying to win two games for us has been like trying to climb Mount Everest,'' All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "We haven't been able to get any momentum going.''
Asomugha voiced more displeasure with the Raiders' defense Wednesday, calling its schemes too simple.
"We're a team that chooses to be who we are regardless of who we're playing against and regardless of the matchups or the things that the other team is going to present,'' Asomugha said. "We've got one way of doing it and that's what we do, and teams can get us into some tough situations.''
The Raiders have allowed an NFL-worst 54 plays of at least 20 yards, with 15 coming on the ground and 39 through the air.
The Steelers haven't lost four straight since dropping five in a row Sept. 28-Nov. 2, 2003, and haven't faced the Raiders since losing 20-13 in Oakland on Oct. 29, 2006 - part of a stretch of six losses in seven games.
The Raiders gained 98 total yards in that game, winning largely due to Roethlisberger's four interceptions - one of which Asomugha returned for a touchdown.
Gradkowski has five interceptions in two career starts in his hometown.