PITTSBURGH (AP)—The Steelers were in trouble, and they knew it. The Bengals exposed some weaknesses a month ago, the Chiefs and the Ravens took advantage of them, and now the Oakland Raiders—yes, even the Raiders—felt Pittsburgh could be beaten.
Just when it seemed as if it couldn’t get any worse for the Super Bowl champions, it did.
|BURNED—Raiders wide receiver Louis Murphy runs away from Steeler cornerback Ike Taylor as he heads to the end zone with one of his touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
They’re losing confidence. The Raiders (4-8), with one of the league’s worst offenses in years, sensed that while driving for three touchdowns in the final 8? minutes of their 27-24 comeback victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Detect a trend? For the second time in four seasons, the Steelers (6-6) followed up a Super Bowl win by losing the following season to Oakland, which has won only 15 games during that span. The Steelers didn’t make the playoffs following that 2006 loss, and they’re in danger of not making them now.
“I can’t even describe how frustrating it is right now to be 6-6,” linebacker James Farrior said. “We thought we’d be doing a lot better at this point. But we are what our record says we are.”
The Steelers are losing direction, too. Last week was supposed to be Redemption Sunday, as coach Mike Tomlin called it, before they lost at Baltimore 20-17 in overtime. Then Tomlin promised the Steelers would “unleash hell” in December, only to watch them begin the month with one of the franchise’s most unexpected losses at home in the last decade.
“It’s a tough loss,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “This loss definitely hurts.”
They were two-touchdown favorites over a Raiders team that scored only 10 touchdowns on offense in their first 11 games, yet the Steelers couldn’t hold fourth-quarter leads of 10-6, 17-13 and 24-20.
A miracle? Not quite, but it was obvious from their post-game reaction that none of the Steelers expected this. Another disturbing trend: It was the fifth time in their six losses the Steelers lost a lead in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t know that it was a result of any baggage that we brought into the stadium,” Tomlin said. “I just think we played poorly at a critical time.”
Their relatively soft schedule was supposed to give the Steelers a good chance of salvaging their season. Instead, their soft pass defense allowed the Raiders to keep coming back and coming back as Bruce Gradkowski threw touchdown passes of 75 and 11 yards to Louis Murphy and 17 yards to Chaz Schilens, all as the lead changed five times in the final minutes.
Rashard Mendenhall scored on a 3-yard run with 7:13 remaining and Ben Roethlisberger threw a go-ahead 11-yard TD pass to Hines Ward with 1:56 to go, yet it still wasn’t enough.
“I was just out there slinging it and our guys just made some big plays,” said Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh native whose mom cooked dinner for the Raiders offense on Friday night. “We had the breaks fall our way.”
Gradkowski’s ability to lead comeback after comeback illustrates how the Steelers’ defense has slipped from a year ago. It was the first time in 30 years a Raiders quarterback has thrown three touchdown passes during a fourth-quarter comeback.
“That was so exciting, I can’t even put into words how I feel,” Gradkowski said.
Running the NFL’s second-worst offense against the league’s No. 3 defense, Gradkowski threw for 188 yards and three touchdowns in the final 13 minutes, finished off by the 11-yarder to Murphy with nine seconds remaining that completed an 82-yard drive.
“I think we’re finding ourselves a little bit,” running back Justin Fargas said. “We’re finding a rhythm, our receivers are making plays and that was big for us.”
A big letdown for the Steelers, who probably must sweep the Browns, Packers, Ravens and Dolphins to save their season.
“Huh?” Tomlin said of the Steelers’ playoff chances. “I’m just trying to win a game, man.”