OAKLAND, Calif. -- This intensely anticipated season of sweet promise -- the defense of the Super Bowl, the start of another dynasty -- is all but over.
On a near-perfect October afternoon, the Steelers, who in the first six games had shown themselves to be incapable of defeating a championship-caliber team, lost to not just a bad team but to one of the worst in the National Football League, too.
If you can't beat the Oakland Raiders, whom can you beat?
But even the Raiders -- winners of only four games last season and, until yesterday, one game this season -- were too much for the Steelers. The team that couldn't beat NFL weaklings like the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers humbled the Steelers.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had been superb in his two previous starts, threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and the Steelers fell to 2-5 with a 20-13 loss at McAfee Coliseum.
Super Bowl talk is no longer on the table. The playoffs remain a mathematical possibility, nothing more.
"Every game is a must win," said guard Alan Faneca, speaking the language of hope more than experience . "All that matters is the game that's next. It doesn't matter five or six games from now. All that matters is next week."
The Steelers are three games behind the Baltimore Ravens and two behind the Cincinnati Bengals. Perhaps the most ignominious aspect of their plight is that they are tied for last place in the AFC North Division with the hapless Browns. Not only does it not get easier for the Steelers, it becomes considerably more difficult. Their next two opponents are the Denver Broncos and the New Orleans Saints, both 5-2.
To a man the Steelers cited turnovers as their undoing, not only yesterday but all season, and there is much truth to that theory. But despite the turnovers, victory was within their reach yesterday. That they could not take advantage of their situation was the most disheartening aspect of the day and speaks greatly to what kind of team they really are.
After cutting a 14-point deficit to seven midway through the fourth quarter, the Steelers intercepted an Oakland pass and moved to a first down on the Raiders' 1-yard line.
First and goal from the 1. It shouldn't get any better than that. Turns out, it couldn't get any worse.
On first down, Willie Parker lost a yard. On second down, Najeh Davenport lost 3 yards. Before a third play could be run, Davenport was called for a false start, pushing the Steelers back to the 10. From there, Roethlisberger passed 7 yards to Hines Ward. But on fourth down, with four wide receivers flooding the end zone, Roethlisberger, under pressure, broke out of the pocket, started toward the goal, then threw to a tightly covered Santonio Holmes. Middle linebacker Kirk Morrison knocked the pass away.
"We had an opportunity at the end of the game and couldn't put it in the end zone," said coach Bill Cowher.
It has been a season of lost opportunity for the Steelers, who opened the defense of their Super Bowl championship with an impressive win over the Miami Dolphins. The victory was a mirage. The Dolphins are almost as large a disappointment as the Steelers and have won only one game.
Next came losses to Jacksonville, Cincinnati and San Diego. All were close games against playoff-caliber teams. An impressive win over the Kansas City Chiefs sparked some hope for the Steelers. But a loss the following week to Atlanta, a team not as highly regarded, diminished that hope.
The Oakland game was expected to be a chance for the Steelers to regain their footing before heading into a difficult phase of their schedule. Instead, it looms as the game that crushed their season.
"We need to do a lot of soul-searching," receiver Hines Ward said. "We need to see who is going to give up, who is going to keep battling. I know I will continue to fight my tail off regardless of the record."
As much a part of the downfall of the team as turnovers have been penalties that displayed a lack of discipline. That, too, was part of this defeat.
Of the 41 yards the Raiders gained on a third quarter field-goal drive, 30 of them were the result of costly penalties that occurred after a play. First, Larry Foote was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for shoving a Raider. A play later, as the teams were lined up for the snap, a flag was thrown against Joey Porter for unsportsmanlike conduct.
"Some talk was taking place," Cowher said, "and the officials thought it was directed at him and the players thought it was being directed at each other."
Linebacker Clark Haggans, who was on the field at the time, said, "He [the ref] got upset for some reason. Nobody was talking to him that I saw."
Mostly, the Steelers are at a loss to explain their abrupt decline.
"The real question is, why are having so many turnovers," said center Jeff Hartings. "That's a question that's hard to answer. Why in the last eight of last season did we have hardly any turnovers and why are we having so many this year?"
Said Ward: "It seems like last year all the balls were bouncing our way and this year we're not getting those same bounces. We have to find a way to adjust and keep battling, and hopefully they will."
Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com .