- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- If you want to check the current mood of the defending Super Bowl champions, walk by Ryan Clark's locker and ask him how he's feeling.
"It sucks, man," the Pittsburgh Steelers safety said of losing three in a row. "I wish I could put it more eloquently with my very articulate ways, but I can't.
"It sucks. I hate losing. Right now we're not very good on defense. We're not a very good football team, and we got to do something different and be better."
Frustration is at an all-time high in Pittsburgh.
Expectations were through the roof as the Steelers returned nearly their entire core in an effort to become the first NFL team to repeat since the 2003-04 New England Patriots. Instead, inconsistent play, injuries and blown fourth-quarter leads have contributed to a 6-5 record and have the Steelers on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason.
This is the time of year when Pittsburgh usually thrives. But last week's overtime loss to the rival Baltimore Ravens marked the Steelers' first three-game losing streak in November in nine years. It's also the first time Pittsburgh dropped three in a row under third-year head coach Mike Tomlin.
Now, with their season on the brink, the Steelers likely must go 4-1 in the final five games to extend their season. If the Steelers fail to make the playoffs, it would be one of the biggest disappointments for this franchise in recent memory.
"It’s going to test our mental toughness," Tomlin said. "I think the big thing for us, as we prepare for this week and ultimately move through December, is we don’t carry the baggage of recent weeks."
Losing has the potential to separate any team -- even a close-knit group such as the Steelers.
Pittsburgh is a veteran club with solid leadership that's been together for several years. But recently there have been cracks in the foundation.
The most recent was Hines Ward's criticism of fellow captain Ben Roethlisberger. That issue arose when Roethlisberger (concussion) was pulled from the starting lineup one day before the Week 12 loss to Baltimore. Ward couldn't keep his frustrations in house and publicly expressed his disappointment to the media with his starting quarterback for not playing.
Ward later apologized to his team and Roethlisberger for his comments.
"We talked," Ward said. "I’m not going to get into what was specifically said. But the issue has been resolved."
Team unity will be key for Pittsburgh down the stretch.
The Steelers begin a crucial month Sunday against the Oakland Raiders (3-8). Pittsburgh also will play the Cleveland Browns (1-10), Green Bay Packers (7-4) and Baltimore (6-5) in consecutive weeks, looking to string together wins to get into the playoffs.
"We’ve lost a few games, but we got to stick together," Steelers tight end Heath Miller said. "That’s the only way to turn this thing around."
Clark acknowledged the in-house tension but doesn't believe it will be detrimental.
"We are like brothers. [But], you know, brothers fight," Clark said. "I beat my little brother up many times. I'm not proud of it because I’m so much older than he is. But you love him afterwards. You hug him up and go outside and play, and that’s what we got to do."
Despite all the frustration, anger and disappointment, the Steelers believe they know the solution.
According to Tomlin, getting back on the winning track will mask the team's recent issues.
"Anytime you have 53 guys, there are going to be disagreements and misunderstandings and miscommunications," Tomlin said. "I think it’s highlighted by losing. It becomes a story at times in the midst of losing. So I tend to focus on the real root of our ills, and that is searching for and ultimately finding a winning formula."
"The playoffs officially begin for us this week," Ward said. "You lose, we’re pretty much out of it."
The good news for Pittsburgh is it has a history of playing great football in December.
Since 2000, the Steelers are 28-11 (.718 winning percentage) in December. That record includes 3-1 marks in 2005 and 2008, which propelled Pittsburgh to its past two Super Bowl victories.
Whether the Steelers can come together once again this December is totally up to them. But, either way, it will be interesting to watch how the defending champions respond during this year's stretch run.