Like a migraine that won't go away, the Steelers are trying to deal with the pain of the National Football League's longest losing streak, the embarrassment of losing to three of the league's worst teams and the frustration that goes with watching a season tumble into disrepair just 10 months after winning the Super Bowl.
Not to mention the very real possibility that the nightmare they happen to be enduring might not end any time soon. Possibly not until next season.
"To lose five straight, coming off a Super Bowl, it's embarrassing for me," said wide receiver Hines Ward.
"I would have never imagined we would be in this situation," said inside linebacker James Farrior, like Ward, one of the team captains. "I don't know if we can get out of the hole we made."
It seemed bad when the Steelers (6-7) lost in overtime Nov. 22 to the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that was 2-7 at the time and had won just four of its previous 34 games. It seemed even worse when they lost by the same 27-24 score two weeks later to the Oakland Raiders, a team with three victories.
But, if those losses weren't embarrassing enough, the Steelers reached a new seasonal low Thursday night when they lost, 13-6, to the Cleveland Browns, a team that had one victory, had not beaten the Steelers in 12 consecutive meetings and owned, statistically, the worst offense and defense in the NFL.
Oh, and a team that was playing without five defensive starters, including Pro Bowl nose tackle Shaun Rogers, because of season-ending injuries.
It was so bad the Steelers didn't even have to give it away with turnovers (0), penalties (4 for 40 yards) or kick returns for touchdowns (0).
"It hurts a lot losing five in a row," said Ward, who caught four passes for 21 yards against the Browns despite playing with a mild hamstring injury. "There's nothing fun about losing, especially five in a row.
"It's embarrassing for me because we're better than that. I see this team put a lot of work into it in practice and for whatever reason we're not going out and playing the way we're capable of playing. We still have the same makeup of the team from last year and people are going to question what happened. I don't know. I really can't say. But you're going to find out these last three games who wants to quit and who wants to fight their tail off."
The Steelers have three games remaining against teams with non-losing records -- the Green Bay Packers (8-4), Baltimore Ravens (6-6) and Miami Dolphins (6-6) -- each of which has designs on a wild-card playoff spot. They clung to some of those same aspirations before Thursday night, hopes that were quickly dissipated when Ben Roethlisberger was sacked eight times and the Steelers allowed the Browns to tie their season high with 171 yards rushing.
But, make no mistake, if the Steelers can lose in a span of five weeks to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns -- teams with a combined 9-28 record -- the possibility of not winning another game and finishing the season with what would be the first eight-game losing streak since 1969 is very much a reality.
Doubters are advised to check the collective pulse of the team and monitor the psyche of the players who dressed quietly and looked defeated in the locker room inside Cleveland Browns Stadium.
"We've been in this position all season with teams we should beat and we're not getting it done," said running back Rashard Mendenhall, who carried only 16 times for 53 yards against the Browns. "We need to look in the mirror. These last few losses were embarrassing for the team. As good as we have been, that's not acceptable."
Curiously, the Steelers have fared better against teams with a winning record -- witness their victories against the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos, teams with a combined 27-9 record. What's more, the Steelers are not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention because it is conceivable a 9-7 record could get one of the two wild-card playoff spots in the American Football Conference.
And, when you get right down to it, no other NFL team has as many close losses as the Steelers, who have lost seven games by a combined 28 points.
Still, based on their lackluster performance against the Browns and the inability of a once-proud defense to shut down the three worst offenses in the league, the only people who are thinking about the Steelers making the playoffs are the same people who are expecting the Pirates to have a winning season in 2010.
"We're still a good football team," said cornerback Deshea Townsend, a 12-year veteran. "We're playing good football -- in spots. That's the thing, it's in spots."
"It's the same personnel [as the Super Bowl]. If personnel is an issue, we wouldn't have won two Super Bowls. It's mind-boggling to me. There's just such a fine line between winning and losing. If you knew what that line was, you'd stay on the right side of it all of the time."
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .