This season isn't as bad as 2006, when the Steelers finished 8-8 a year after winning Super Bowl XL, but the ending may very well be the same for Pittsburgh (6-5). Several weeks from now, the Steelers could find themselves sitting at home instead of defending their title when the playoffs get under way.
If the season ended today, the Denver Broncos (7-4) and Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5) would hold the two wild cards in the AFC. The mere thought of that made for an angry Steelers locker room and head coach Sunday night.
"Anybody that sees us coming, they better bring their best, because that’s what we’re bringing to the table," Steelers offensive tackle Willie Colon said. "And I back Coach [Tomlin] on that 100 percent. I work too hard in the offseason, and we worked our tails off to come out and defend our throne.
"Obviously, things haven’t turned out like we planned. The next thing is to start knocking over people's houses until we get what we want."
Based on these comments, it's clear Pittsburgh's season is officially on the brink.
Interesting subplots are also starting to develop within the locker room as frustrations mount.
For instance, veteran receiver Hines Ward, the heart and soul of the Steelers, did not hide the fact that he was very disappointed starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) didn't play Sunday night. Roethlisberger practiced all week but a decision was made not to play at the last minute, putting the Steelers in a tough spot with former third-stringer Dennis Dixon, who played well but threw a crucial interception in overtime that led to the winning score.
"This is the biggest game of the year," Ward said bluntly. "Me being a competitor, I just wished we had all our weapons out there."
Roethlisberger, who had exercise-induced headaches, said after the game that he wanted to play but doctors and coaches said it wouldn’t be a good decision. Ward later clarified his statements Monday morning on ESPN's SportsCenter and said he was just frustrated.
Tomlin, in an effort to douse the fires, plans to talk to Ward and the rest of the team to clearly explain why Roethlisberger was pulled from the starting lineup a day before the game.
"I’m not worried about a problem in the locker room," Tomlin said. "Of course, in that instance maybe Hines was uninformed."
Things like this happen when teams underperform.
The term "pressure busts pipes" can even apply to a veteran team like the Steelers, especially if things continue to go south. In Pittsburgh's case, not making the playoffs would make for one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory.
"You come off a Super Bowl year, you got the same nucleus as a team, and to lose three in a row is frustrating," Ward said. "It’s frustrating as a player, a team and as an organization. We just got to get back on the right track."
Pittsburgh will be jousting with several teams, including the equally desperate Ravens (6-5), for one of the final playoffs slots in the AFC. Pittsburgh and Baltimore will meet again in Week 16, and most likely the Steelers will have to win four of their last five to continue playing deep into January. That is why Tomlin is creating the must-win mindset.
"We’ll go into attack mode, because that’s what's required," Tomlin said.
The reigning champs have reached a fork in the road.
The choice is up to the Steelers whether to straighten up and take the proper path to the postseason or continue their downward spiral.
"We can't let the outsiders divide us, and we can’t listen to the B.S. that's starting to float around now," Colon said. "We got to fight."