For Steelers, Colts, fine line between them equals 18 points
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In the tenuous and often cruel world of the National Football League, unbeaten teams who are on the verge of tying a league record for consecutive victories and teams who can't even win in Kansas City are separated by a thin line.
Game: Steelers (6-5) vs. Oakland Raiders (3-8).
When: 1 p.m.
Where: Heinz Field.
Radio: WDVE-FM (102.5), WBGG-AM (970).
While the Indianapolis Colts, who have won 20 regular-season games in a row, keep winning by the slimmest of margins, the Steelers, who have lost three in a row for the first time under coach Mike Tomlin, keep losing by the slimmest of margins.
While the Colts are in position to clinch one of two first-round playoff byes with a victory against the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers (6-5) are trying to gather themselves and get rid of what Tomlin referred to as their "mental baggage" with a victory at 1 p.m. today at Heinz Field against the Oakland Raiders (3-8), a team that just might be the Kansas City Chiefs in silver-and-black uniforms.
On the surface, it would appear there is much difference between the Colts and Steelers, teams separated by five games in the American Football Conference standings. But, upon closer examination, the difference is nearly indiscernible, almost microscopic.
"There's a fine line in this business," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "The teams that are undefeated, they won the tight games. The teams that are in middle of the pack, they lose the tight games."
Indeed, there is no greater example than the Colts and Steelers.
The unbeaten Colts (11-0) have won their past five games by a total of 18 points. They were aided by a missed 42-yard field goal as time expired against Houston, a hotly debated coaching gaffe by New England's Bill Belichick and a Joe Flacco interception from the Colts' 14 in the final minutes against Baltimore.
The Steelers have lost five games by a total of 18 points, including two in overtime. They were aided by two missed field goals in Chicago, a blown 11-point lead in the final 9 minutes in Cincinnati, a deflected interception off the hands of Heath Miller in Kansas City and a failure to get off the field on fourth-and-5 in Baltimore that forced overtime.
The 18 points that have helped put the Colts on the cusp of tying the league record for consecutive regular-season victories are the same 18 points that have tortured the Steelers and put their season in an untenable position where nothing less than a 4-1 finish is needed to continue to the postseason. And, if they want, a suitable defense of their Super Bowl title.
"The mark of a good team, the mark of a team that wins a lot of games, is a team that finds a way to win the game at the end," Miller said. "We've been close. If we eliminate some things throughout the course of the game, maybe we're not in that situation at the end of the game."
That's what the Steelers will set about doing these last five games: Try to determine if they are the team that was capable enough to beat division leaders such as Minnesota and San Diego or the team that can't finish off the likes of the Chiefs and Chicago Bears.
It's easy to say they did it in 2005 when they were 7-5 after a three-game losing streak, won their final four regular-season games and became the first No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl.
But their losses that year were to the Colts (14-2), Jacksonville Jaguars (12-4), Cincinnati Bengals (11-5), New England Patriots (10-6) and Baltimore Ravens (6-10) -- teams with a combined 53-27 record, a winning percentage of .662. This year, the combined record of the teams that have beaten them is 21-23, a percentage of .477 -- annoying losses that create the very mental anguish Tomlin said he wants his players to forget.
"It's almost more reassuring to lose to a bad team as opposed to a good team," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will start against the Raiders after missing last week's game with post-concussion symptons. "All our games are close, either overtime or a field goal here or a field goal there. And I think it's more like, 'Ah, we're that close, what's wrong with us? Let's go;' instead of being like, 'Man, we're being beat by good teams, we're not that good.' We can beat these teams."
Welcome to life in the National Football League.
Years ago, former Cincinnati Bengals Coach Sam Wyche said the NFL can be broken down almost in the same manner every season: Four really good teams, four really bad teams, and 24 others struggling and clawing to see if they will finish 10-6 or 6-10. The same holds true today, and the Steelers are the quintessential embodiment of Wyche's theory.
"I think the frustrating part is, we have lost so many close games," center Justin Hartwig said. "There are a few games in there -- actually all of them -- where we lost so close that we're kicking ourselves in the butt. We won those games last year, and that's the unfortunate part.
"The thing is, we know what we're capable of in this locker room and we're going to take it one game at a time. All we're trying to do is get into the dance and we know what we're capable of."
History will note the Steelers have never lost four games in a row in a season in which they made the playoffs, a streak they hope to avoid against the Raiders. But, to many, there are still memories of what happened three weeks ago in Kansas City, a loss so disturbingly annoying that some players still shake their head over the outcome.
"You got to get that taste out of your mouth," Ward said. "Losing to Kansas City, it took me a while to recover from that, until the following Thursday or Friday. To sit there and realize we lost to Kansas City. ... It felt like we had the game won. And the way we lost. Then we lose to Baltimore and Cincinnati. You cant let losses linger to the next game."
All of which is why Tomlin delivered his "don't carry the baggage of recent weeks" into December. Especially because the Steelers play three of their next four games at Heinz Field, where they are 17-4 in December.
That, though, might be easier said than done.
"For me, it's not so hard to forget the losses as the plays you did or did not make during the losses," said safety Ryan Clark, who has been victimized on long pass plays in each of the past two losses. "I'm not worried about Kansas City and Baltimore, but I am worried about making sure that 47-yard pass at the end of game doesn't happen or the long pass to [Baltimore's Mark] Clayton doesn't happen again. It's harder to forget those things and say I'm not going to worry about them."
"It's just about playing ball," Roethlisberger said. "If you just kind of stop worrying about so many things and just go play, know your assignments, know what you're supposed to do, I don't think it's that tough."
First Published December 6, 2009 12:00 am