The Steelers find themselves in free fall, desperate for a safety net that is Heinz Field against two opponents who have been more than happy to provide whatever help they can.
The more the Steelers lose, the clearer their path to a playoff berth becomes. They must beat Cincinnati and Cleveland at home in the next two Sundays and that will put them in the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
The Bengals and Browns have been more than accommodating to their neighbors in Pennsylvania. The Steelers have won 10 of their past 12 against the Bengals, including a 24-17 victory Oct. 21 in Cincinnati. The Browns have lost 16 of their past 18 to the Steelers, but did upset them Nov. 25 in Cleveland, 20-14.
But the Steelers have lost four of their past five and have lost more players to injuries. Their two upcoming AFC North Division foes are on opposite streaks. Cincinnati, a game ahead of the Steelers at 8-6, has won five of its past six and will play at Heinz Field on 10 days of rest after they beat Philadelphia, 34-13, Thursday. Cleveland, 5-9 and out of the playoff hunt, has won three of its past four, losing Sunday to Washington, 38-21.
The Steelers haven't put together consecutive victories since Nov. 12, when they beat Kansas City in overtime for their third in a row.
"We can still get in, that's our goal," linebacker Larry Foote said after the Steelers' 27-24 overtime loss Sunday to the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas. "We're making it hard on ourselves, but it's still reachable.
"We can't look at two; we have to look at one. That's going to be a big challenge, playing Cincinnati at our house. I expect Pittsburgh to be crazy. We have to take a playoff approach. We can't lose."
Foote and his teammates talked about getting on a roll in December, and they started out with a bang in Baltimore, beating the Ravens with backup quarterback Charlie Batch, 23-20. They followed that with their worst game of the season, a 34-24 loss to San Diego at home and then a loss Sunday to Dallas.
There is no more wiggle room for them.
"We're going to see what we're made of," Foote said. "We're going to fold to the pressure or make love to it."
The reward might be a dubious one because looming might be a trip to New England to play the Patriots in the first round, but that's the price for going 9-7. The Steelers previously made the playoffs with a 9-7 record in 1993, when they traveled to Kansas City and Joe Montana's Chiefs beat them in overtime, 27-24.
"Nobody's feeling sorry for us," defensive lineman Casey Hampton said. "We had an opportunity to make plays, we just didn't do it. It's a tough situation, but we still have to overcome that."
Nearly every game has been close for the Steelers this season. Of their 14 games, eight have been decided by four points or fewer. A ninth came by six points, a 10th by seven points and another, the opener, wasn't decided until a pick-six with less than two minutes to play by Denver.
Hampton, for one, does not feel fortunate to still have a path to the playoffs despite losing four of the past five.
"Feel fortunate? We won enough games to be in it. It's not a fortunate league. We did enough to win enough games to put ourselves in position to be where we are. We have to play better and try to get this next one."
Injuries hurting team
Many might wonder what the psychological state of the Steelers might be after losing four of five. More important is their physical health.
They ended up playing in Dallas with three cornerbacks on defense who have played hardly at all this season -- Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian and Robert Golden.
Keenan Lewis, who has given Ike Taylor a run as the team's best cornerback, left in the fourth quarter with what he said was another hip injury. He was trying to show his coaches he could continue to play but never returned. Taylor might miss his third consecutive game with a hairline fracture of his ankle, and No. 3 corner Cortez Allen was scratched Sunday with a groin injury. Another backup cornerback, DeMarcus Van Dyke, left the game with a separated shoulder.
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders left the game with what he said was a cracked rib.
"Those things should heal fast, so hopefully I'll be back next week," Sanders said.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley returned after missing two games with a sprained ankle but he was spelled often by Jason Worilds.
• Rashard Mendenhall, suspended for one week by Mike Tomlin, returned to the team Monday. He has been reinstated and the Steelers will have a roster exemption for him until 4 p.m. today. Halfback Baron Batch was signed to the 53-man roster last week to replace him.
• The crowd of 95,595 was the largest to watch the Steelers in a regular-season game. Crowds of up to 84,000 routinely turned out in Cleveland when the Steelers played the Browns in the 1960s and 1970s. The Steelers played the Raiders in Los Angeles Coliseum before 83,056 in 1984 and against the Redskins at FedEx Field in Washington before 90,512 in 2008. They have played before larger crowds in Super Bowls -- 103,985 (still the record) in Super Bowl XIV at Rose Bowl and 103,219 at Cowboys Stadium in Super Bowl XLV.
• Heath Miller's eighth touchdown reception is his career high and he leads the team's position players in scoring with 50 points, including a 2-point conversion.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter: @EdBouchette. First Published December 18, 2012 5:00 AM