Steelers baffled, upset by mystifying collapse

PITTSBURGH (AP) -The disappointment and confusion are very evident in a downcast Pittsburgh Steelers locker room. An explanation for one of the most baffling failures by any Super Bowl champion isn't nearly as obvious.

Normally in mid-December, the Steelers (6-7) are trying to get healthy as they gear up for the playoffs. Instead, the Steelers returned to work on a gloomy Monday knowing their season is all but certain to end Jan. 3 in Miami.

Losses to three of the NFL's worst teams - the Browns (2-11), Raiders (4-9) and Chiefs (3-10) - plus defeats to Cincinnati (9-4) and Baltimore (7-6) quickly turned a very good season into a very bad one. Now the offseason looks to be unexpectedly long and unpleasantly empty for a team that's appeared in four AFC championship games since 2001.

As that offseason rapidly approaches, the Steelers' angst is turning into anger.

A lot of guys are down,'' left guard Chris Kemoeatu said.Everybody's miserable around here.''

Including the head coach. Mike Tomlin didn't make the team practice four days following the 13-6 loss in Cleveland, but he held a walkthrough that addressed all the mistakes they made during their fifth consecutive loss.

The session wasn't pleasant.

He's pretty upset about these losses,'' linebacker James Farrior said.He feels like it's more on us than anything else, and that's the most frustrating thing about it.''

Every player seems to have a theory for how the Steelers' season went wrong. James Harrison said it's players getting away from their responsibilities and trying to make plays they shouldn't or couldn't make. Others point to a lack of focus. Troy Polamalu targets the kicking game breakdowns and the poor situational play; the Steelers are 1-7 in games decided by seven points or fewer.

The defensive backs said they didn't get the proper play calls late in the loss to Oakland. Kemoeatu said there was a lack of communication along the offensive line as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked eight times in Cleveland.

As the defeats mounted, the Steelers' confidence ebbed and doubt developed.

We're doing everything we can to fight it because we have to go out and play these next three games and we can't have anybody doubting that we can win a game,'' Farrior said.We know we can win a game, but being in a situation like this is pretty tough, to think you might not be capable of winning a game. We definitely have the athletes in here that can do it. We've proved it in the past.''

Another problem for the rest of the season is that remaining opponents Green Bay (9-4), Baltimore and Miami (7-6) all are in playoff contention.

The Steelers' last six-game losing streak occurred 10 years ago, when they went 6-10 following a 5-3 start. They haven't had a losing streak of longer than six games since they dropped their final 13 in 1969, plus their first three in 1970.

It's definitely a shock,'' Farrior said.It's definitely somewhere where we never imagined being.''

Even if the Steelers perform a late turnaround by winning their final three, the playoffs remain a longshot because they are 1-4 in the AFC North and 4-6 in the AFC. All nine AFC teams that are 7-6 or better own a better conference record than Pittsburgh.

No, we stopped doing that,'' Farrior said.We did that a few games ago, looking at the rest of the schedule and saying if we win our and all that stuff. Man, we're just trying to beat Green Bay. That's what we've gotten to now.''

But when did they get themselves into this mess? When they couldn't put beat Cincinnati in a close game for the second time this season? When the Kansas City loss segued into an overtime defeat in Baltimore and, then, the unexplainable last-minute loss at home to Oakland?

Hines Ward said the Steelers' season was over if they lost to the Raiders - and not only did they lose, they followed it by losing in Cleveland.

No, man, I don't pay attention to Hines. I didn't think like that after we lost the Oakland game,'' Farrior said.I really felt like we still had a chance, the way it's been going around the league you never know what's going to happen. But we definitely dealt ourselves into something (in Cleveland) we probably can't get out of.''

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