Steelers face a must-win today at Heinz Field


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The pick-six at the end of the game in Denver. Squandering a pair of 10-point leads in the second half in Oakland. Blowing a seven-point lead in the final four minutes in Tennessee. Committing eight turnovers in Cleveland.

None of that matters any more. Not even the interception that ended last the overtime loss Sunday in Dallas.

Now, with a season dwindling and playoff hopes flickering, all that matters to the Steelers is being able to put behind them the crippling frustration of so many key injuries and the gnawing pain of so many bad defeats and trying to pull themselves together for just one more game.

Getting on a roll, playing the way many of them expected, trying to gather steam for the postseason, all that is idealism. When the Cincinnati Bengals come to Heinz Field today, basically facing the same task as the Steelers, the only thing that matters is winning.

Not style points. Not margin of victory. Not fancy catches or highlight-film runs.

Just one thing.

Winning.

If they don't, their season, effectively, is over.

"We got to beat Cincinnati for a multitude of reasons, and one reason is, if you don't win, you're out of the playoff hunt," said safety Ryan Clark. "This may be a stupid statement of mine, but the biggest reason I want to win is because I want to have something to come to work for on Wednesday.

"It's not a job right now. Right now, it's something I do and I love it. You come in next week, it will be a job if you lose this game."

Make no mistake, even if the Steelers beat the Bengals, something they did earlier this season in Paul Brown Stadium, their work isn't finished. They will have to do the same thing again next Sunday -- beat the Cleveland Browns -- if they want to keep playing into the postseason.

Two wins. One game at a time. Against teams they have dominated in recent history.

Easy as throwing on a light switch, especially for a team that has 17 players on its roster who have played in two Super Bowls the past five seasons?

"I don't think you can turn on and off energy, you can't turn on and off effort," Clark said. "Those are things that have to be present. I think we have those things present. Guys are playing hard, guys are working hard. But you can fix technique, you can fix mental errors, and that's what's costing us games.

"Those things can change. Those things can change in a week, those things can change in an instant. That's what we have to do."

If only the players can convince themselves of that.

Remembering their place

The biggest challenge facing the Steelers today is not acrobatic receiver A.J. Green or quarterback Andy Dalton or a running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is the first Bengals player in 44 years to have four 100-yard rushing outings in five games. It isn't even a defense that uses a rotation of seven linemen to generate more sacks than any team in the league.

It is getting the players to remember that, despite all their problems, they are one of just three teams who remain to battle for two playoff spots. It just so happens that the team they face at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field is one of the others.

"I think for us it's been really tough to overcome injuries," said safety Troy Polamalu, who was one of those injured players, missing nine games because of a torn right calf muscle. "As much as we have the mentality of the next man steps up, we've kind of been forced into that mentality because of the injuries we've had here, year in and year out.

Consider what the Steelers have had to endure: The loss of their top quarterback, their top wide receiver, their top running back, their top outside linebacker, their top cornerback, their top safety and their No. 1 draft choice. All those players missed at least three games.

That doesn't include games missed by center Maurkice Pouncey and LaMarr Woodley and season-ending injuries to starting fullback David Johnson, right tackle Marcus Gilbert and left guard Willie Colon.

"What's nice is we still have an opportunity," Polamalu said. "I don't know, hopefully, we're starting to get healthier. Once we get out there, once more of us get out there, Ben gets more games under his belt, I'm getting more games, we'll see how things turn out."

How the Steelers have arrived at this point is not pretty. They have lost four of their past five games and squandered chances to eliminate the Bengals and close ground on the Baltimore Ravens with a sloppy loss to the Browns and a dispirited defeat to the San Diego Chargers.

On top of that, they watched in shocking disbelief as their top offensive players -- Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown -- made the mistakes that ended the overtime loss last week in Dallas. That defeat likely has stayed with the Steelers longer than any other this season.

"You hate losing those games," Clark said. "Dallas, obviously, was a tough loss, to lose that way. San Diego was hard because you felt it was a game you should've won and you just laid a total egg. It is tough to lose them, but we can't carry them all week because you have to prepare to play someone else. I can't come in here and go over plays from the Dallas game."

Bengals must believe

In many respects, the Bengals are battling the very same demons that are standing in the way of their playoff appearance -- themselves.

All they have to do to get into the playoffs is beat the Steelers. They can still win the AFC North, but that would require also beating the Ravens.

And while that possibility seems more plausible than unlikely, given the Steelers' plight and the Ravens' three-game losing streak, the Bengals have to convince themselves they can do it. Even though they have won five of their past six games.

"I'm never worried about having to prove anything to anybody," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're competing to get to the playoffs -- first to win the division and then to get to the playoffs after that. I think that's really the only thing I was ever concerned with. The proof is in what you do every week. You're never going to prove everything to everybody all the time, anyway."

Nonetheless, this could be a defining moment for the franchise and where they are headed with their Pro Bowl passing tandem of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.

Dalton is the first rookie quarterback in league history to throw at least 20 touchdowns and lead his team to the playoffs. In two years, he has led the Bengals to six fourth-quarter victories and a 10-5 record on the road.

Green, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 draft, is the first player in NFL history to have at least 100 catches, 1,500 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns in his first 20 games.

But, for all their accomplishments in such a short time, the dynamic duo has yet to beat the Steelers (0-3) and the Ravens (0-3).

To be sure, the Bengals have won four of their 10 games at Heinz Field, including back-to-back games in 2005 and 2006. Each time, though, the Steelers beat them when it mattered -- in a wild-card playoff game in Cincinnati in 2005 and again in Paul Brown Stadium in 2006 in a game that ended the Bengals' playoff chances.

If they manage to win this time, the Bengals will become just the sixth team since 2005 to make the postseason four times. However, the Bengals never have won a playoff game under Lewis (0-3).

Of course, they have never had back-to-back winning seasons in 10 years under Lewis, a drought they can end with a victory against the Steelers.

"We can't control the past," Green said. "This is only my second year, so making the playoffs again would be great."

Only one thing will assure that.

Winning.

Steelers - mobilehome

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published December 23, 2012 5:00 AM


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