CLEVELAND -- It's one thing to lose a football game. It happens to half of the teams in the NFL every week. When the Steelers lost in Baltimore in overtime Nov. 29 without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith, it was understandable. In some ways, their performance even was admirable.
But it's something much worse to be a professional and play as if you don't care. That was the Steelers last night. Coach Mike Tomlin was right a few days earlier when he said he would find out plenty about the character of his players. They revealed themselves completely in an almost unbelievable 13-6 defeat at the frozen hands of the Cleveland Browns.
They are losers.
There is no other word to describe a team that was supposed to be fighting for its playoff life and the right to defend its Super Bowl title, yet was thoroughly outplayed by the 1-11 Browns, an opponent that -- quoting safety Ryan Clark now -- "even a bad Pittsburgh Steelers team should be able to beat every time."
There is no other word to describe a team that has lost five games in a row, including three to the worst that the NFL has to offer -- the Browns, the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs.
There is no other word to describe a team that, by all indications, has quit on the Rooneys, Tomlin, their fans and -- most egregiously -- themselves.
Tomlin talked afterward about how much he admired his guys' "fight" on this frigid night on the shore of Lake Erie. I must have been watching a different game. Wide receiver Hines Ward used words that I thought were much more appropriate. "Frustrating. Disappointing. Embarrassing."
"We're better than this," Ward said, shaking his head.
They aren't better.
It seems unfathomable that a team that went into Denver Nov. 9 and bucked the Broncos, 28-10, to go to 6-2 can be so bad barely a month later. But the Steelers are just that -- dreadfully bad -- in every sense of the word and in every phase of the game.
Their offense couldn't score a touchdown against the NFL's worst defense. It was 3 of 14 on third-down conversions. Roethlisberger was sacked a staggering eight times.
"This was probably the worst we played up front all year," tackle Willie Colon said. "I know it was probably my worst game. I feel like I let the line down."
The Steelers' defense couldn't force a turnover against the NFL's worst offense. The Browns ran for 171 yards, including 87 by Joshua Cribbs out of the wildcat formation. The way the Steelers played it, you would have thought they had never seen it before.
"Mind-boggling," defensive back Deshea Townsend described it.
The Steelers' special teams gave up another ridiculous return, this one a 55-yard punt return to set up a field goal by Cribbs, a noted Steelers slayer. But, hey, at least Cribbs didn't run a kickoff back. Not that the Steelers kicked off much.
The way it looked, the Steelers played as if they couldn't wait to start their Caribbean vacations. The good news for them is they don't have much longer to wait. There will be no playoffs for them this season. Three more games -- almost certainly three more losses -- and their agony will be over.
As will ours.
This Steelers slide has been as hard to watch as it is to understand. "Like a bad dream," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. I didn't think it could get worse than the loss to the Chiefs. But it did. I didn't think it could get worse than the loss to the Raiders. But it did.
Well, at least that trend is over.
It can't get worse than losing to the Browns.
There just isn't another team in the NFL that is that bad.
This loss was a shame because there was still so much to play for despite those previous four losses. A win in the final four games and the Steelers probably would have made the playoffs. All they had to do to get the first one was beat the Browns.
So much for that.
"It's a wrap," Hampton said with an appropriate tone of finality. "This [bleep] is a wrap."
It almost seemed right that Roethlisberger's fourth-and-6 pass for wide receiver Santonio Holmes with 1:48 to go fell incomplete. The only thing that would have been more appropriate would have been if he had been sacked one more time to end the Steelers' dying gasp.
Somehow, Big Ben kept getting up.
The Steelers didn't.
They were down for the count.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .