CLEVELAND -- The Steelers season continued to slip away as easily as did the football in their hands Sunday, in a place where they had felt more secure than any other road venue.
Security, though, was not something on the Steelers' minds here, or in their hands. They lost eight turnovers -- five fumbles and three Charlie Batch interceptions -- to aid a creaky Cleveland offense to three scores in a 20-14 Browns upset at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Their comedy of errors left them 6-5 after losing two in a row for the first time in three years. Their chance of catching the Ravens (8-2) atop the AFC North Division has shriveled with five games left, including Sunday in Baltimore.
Instead, the Steelers are tied with the Cincinnati Bengals and their playoff hopes in such a tailspin that even the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might not pull them out of it.
"We dropped two in a row now, both division games," tight end Heath Miller said. "We have to get ourselves together in a hurry and figure out a way to get some wins."
Simply, better -- or slightly more competent -- play on offense would be a good place to start. Their eight turnovers were not quite historic for them, but they represented a 67 percent increase in one game from what they had through 10.
"If you turn the ball over the way we did, you're not going to beat anybody," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I'm surprised it was that close given the turnover situation."
They came one after the other after the other right up to the final play of the game. All four halfbacks lost the football, first Rashard Mendenhall, then Isaac Redman, then Jonathan Dwyer and finally Chris Rainey. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders put the cherry on the top by fumbling on the final, desperation play of the game after he received a lateral from Mike Wallace following his only reception of the game.
"When you beat your ownselves, it's tough," safety Ryan Clark said.
It all started out so well for them, too, the way things usually go when the Steelers play the Browns. Of their previous 17 games against Cleveland, the Steelers had won 16.
Sunday, Brett Keisel deflected a third-down pass by rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden on the first series of the game. It popped right toward Lawrence Timmons, who swiped it and ran untouched 53 yards into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
It was the high point of the game for the Steelers.
Their first series on offense did not go as badly, but it did go poorly. Mendenhall started at halfback and started the ball literally rolling when he fumbled on his second carry. The Browns recovered at the Steelers 44 and turned it into a 28-yard field goal, the first of two by Phil Dawson.
The Steelers remained in the lead at 7-3, but the momentum and the ball were quickly slipping away.
"I don't have the answer for what happened," Mendenhall said, "but I know it shouldn't happen and we can't put the ball on the ground."
Tomlin, who does not have much patience for fumblers, sent in Dwyer for the next series but after he ran three consecutive times, Redman replaced him and fumbled at the 10.
The Browns were happy to convert that into Weeden's 5-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron and a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Dawson's second field goal capped a drive unaided by a turnover and sent the Browns to a 13-7 advantage. The Steelers responded with a 1-yard touchdown run by rookie halfback Chris Rainey. He was given that opportunity after Plaxico Burress drew a 25-yard penalty for a pass interference call by Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown in the end zone.
The Steelers led, 14-13, at the half despite losing three fumbles.
Then came the interceptions. Brown made up for his penalty by stepping in front of Burress to pick off Batch for the first time in the third quarter to put Cleveland on the Steelers 31. Four plays later, rookie Trent Richardson twice cut sweetly inside to run 15 yards for a touchdown and a 20-14 Cleveland lead that would stand up the rest of the way, thanks to two more Batch interceptions and two more lost fumbles.
Tomlin had a quick hook for the backs, who were equally incompetent when they held onto the ball, running for just 49 yards on 20 carries. Dwyer led them with 19 yards on nine tries.
"They were fumbling the ball, so we are going to play people that can secure the football," Tomlin said. "But after everybody does it, obviously there aren't very many choices left."
There aren't many games left now for the Steelers to make up the gap between them and the Ravens. They remain in the thick of the wild-card race, but even that is gaining on them with the likes of the Bengals 6-5, too.
"It leaves us in a little bit of a hole," linebacker James Harrison said.
And no daylight in sight.Steelers - mobilehome - homepage
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @EdBouchette. First Published November 26, 2012 5:00 AM