We hit the opening of the final month of 2009 with a promise from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
"We will unleash hell here in December because we have to. We won't go in a shell. We'll go into attack mode, because that's what's required."
Hell hath no fury like the Steelers scorned? The scorn has been heaped on them by the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens for the first three-game losing streak in the young Tomlin coaching era, and they seem to have no choice but to wreak some havoc this month or become the latest of their Super Bowl champions to fall on their faces.
They went 8-8 in 2006 and 9-7 in 1980, failing to make the playoffs in their most recent two chances at trying to win consecutive championships. As they head into their final five games with a 6-5 record, their thoughts have already turned to 2005 because they cling to the memory of the remarkable finish.
"We have to win out," defensive end Brett Keisel stated. "There's no other ifs, ands or buts. We have to win out in order for us to be playing in January."
The Steelers were 7-5 and on a three-game losing streak in 2005 needing victories in their final four games to make the playoffs. They did just that, squeaking into them as the sixth and final AFC seed. They won their next four in the postseason, all away from home, to claim Super Bowl XL, the first team to do so as a sixth seed.
Dare they dream that again?
Two of their losses in that three-game losing streak in 2005 coincidentally came against the Ravens and Bengals, who wound up winning the AFC North Division, just as it seems they are about to do again.
"We've been in that situation before and went in as a sixth seed and won," Keisel said. "We have a lot of veterans on this team who were around for that and, hopefully, we can lead this team to that again."
Just because it happened four years ago, though, means little as they head into their final five games. They have two creampuffs next up in Oakland at home Sunday and then a game in Cleveland the following Thursday night. After that, they play two at home against Green Bay and Baltimore before finishing up in Miami.
They are all winnable games for them and they likely will be favored to win each one. But, after their play in losses at Chicago, two to the Bengals and their dreadful outcome in Kansas City, they have shown that they also are a team that can lose to anyone. And all six victories were in doubt at some point in the fourth quarter -- yes, even against the Browns at home.
And their defense, which slipped from No. 1 last week to No. 3 today, has allowed leads to slip away in the fourth quarter in four losses.
"I'll tell you man, it's been happening, and we have to find a way to answer that and correct that,'' said safety Tyrone Carter. "If we don't, it's going to be a tough five games for us."
Perhaps Hines Ward's comments on whether Ben Roethlisberger should have played Sunday night were said out of frustration, and perhaps confusion as well based on the mixed messages his superiors displayed.
After all, if Roethlisberger was ordered not to play by Steelers doctors because of the headaches he felt late last week after practice, the decision to suit him up as the emergency No. 3 quarterback remains a curious one.
There was a theory that Mike Tomlin had Roethlisberger in uniform to make the Ravens wary about whether he might play or not. But Tomlin said he had every intention to use Roethlisberger if it was necessary, i.e., if Dennis Dixon and backup Tyler Palko were rendered incapable of playing.
Tomlin twice said that Dr. Joseph Maroon "suggested" that Roethlisberger not play because of his post-concussion symptoms or headaches after the exertion of practicing last week.
Here was Tomlin's explanation as to why Roethlisberger was in uniform (and wearing his flak jacket as usual):
"Because, quite frankly, we spent so much time and energy throughout the week preparing both him to play and Dennis to play. We had no time to give a Hines Ward or somebody like that snaps as a 'getcha out of the game' quarterback. So, if disaster happened and two quarterbacks went down in the football game, we were going to have to put him on the field and absolutely hand the ball off every single play."
In other words, Ward or, say, Mewelde Moore were incapable of taking snaps and handing the ball off to someone to end the game? Or, they could not have taken snaps themselves and run with it?
So, they absolutely did not want to risk further injury to Roethlisberger's head -- unless they really had to.
Would that have been OK with Roethlisberger's doctors?
"They would have had to have been," Tomlin said. "I had no other options. I didn't have time nor energy to provide snaps for a disaster quarterback. I had enough issues."
Dennis Dixon earned his spurs in his first NFL play of any substance Sunday in Baltimore. He played well enough that he gave the Steelers a chance to win, and his play also could go a long way to letting his coaches know that he can ultimately be a viable No. 2 quarterback for them.
"We got a glimpse of what we have in Dennis Dixon," safety Ryan Clark said. "Everybody expected him to play well, we had total faith in him. And he went out there and did an awesome job.
"I'm extremely proud of him. I just wish defensively we could have made a few plays to get him his first win."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 1, 2009 5:00 AM