ARLINGTON, Texas -- There are times when heart, history and high expectations mean very little to proud, accomplished football teams. The Pittsburgh Steelers arrived at that juncture early Sunday evening, when an errant Ben Roethlisberger pass landed in the hands of Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr on the second play of overtime. In that split second, the lingering playoff hopes of a dominant franchise sustained a disheartening blow, as if the entire roster had just walked into a brutal sucker punch. Instead of being valiant and undaunted, the Steelers looked as weak and feeble as they've ever been.
The players certainly understand where they stand after Sunday's 27-24 loss. At 7-7, they're going to have a hard time catching the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens. They're also on the wrong end of the wild-card race, trailing the Indianapolis Colts by two games and the Cincinnati Bengals by one game in that fight. If the Steelers can't beat the Bengals next week -- and avoid a loss to Cleveland in the finale -- they may very well be watching the playoffs at home.
This isn't a position Pittsburgh is used to, but it's something the Steelers will have to accept as they enter the final two weeks of the season. They can talk all they want about fighting until the very end. In reality, they gave away their most important opportunity the minute Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey nailed the game-winning 21-yard field goal. As linebacker Larry Foote said, "Our goal is to win Super Bowls, and right now we're not playing to that level. We have to find a way to turn things around."
It's important to remember that this loss alone isn't the sole reason for writing off the Steelers. It's only the final bit of tangible proof in their demise this season. This team has lost four of its past five games at a time when it's usually trending in the other direction. Sure, Roethlisberger was injured for two of those defeats, but he was present when the floundering San Diego Chargers kicked the Steelers around in Heinz Field in Week 14.
That defeat told us that this definitely wasn't the Steelers we'd been accustomed to seeing in December. Sunday's defeat offered a more perplexing image -- that of a team that beat itself when it could least afford to do so. Antonio Brown had a key fumble on a fourth-quarter punt return that led to Dallas tying the game at 24 after Cowboys tight end John Phillips recovered it. The Steelers' anemic running game continued to be unreliable, providing just 69 yards on the ground.
And then there was Roethlisberger's overtime error. The rub there was that he'd been playing exceptionally before that point. In a game when he would throw for 339 yards and two touchdowns, it was an out route that he called for receiver Mike Wallace that would prove to be his most memorable play. Roethlisberger saw something he liked when Carr backed off Wallace at the line of scrimmage. The quarterback's heart sank once Carr dived in front of the pass and returned it to the Steelers' 1-yard line.
Roethlisberger was quick to claim responsibility for the gaffe, saying that he didn't put enough velocity on that pass. "It's 100 percent on me," Roethlisberger said. "I let the team and the fans down [with that play]."
The nice thing about the Steelers is that they have never been big on excuses. Instead of complaining about a patchwork secondary -- injuries had so weakened the unit that little-used reserves like Josh Victorian and Robert Golden played extensively -- they talked about the need for the entire defense to play better. Like Roethlisberger, Brown was just as quick to hold himself responsible for his fumble. He knew what that play could've meant to Pittsburgh's hopes of putting that game out of reach.
The Steelers also knew something far more important -- that they are in no position to overcome the slightest of mistakes. There used to be a day when the end of the regular season equated to a predictable run from this team. The running game would become a little more punishing. Roethlisberger would grow a little more magical in the pocket, as he did late in the first half while spinning, pump-faking and eventually finding Heath Miller behind the defense for a 30-yard touchdown pass.
Don't forget about the defense, either. It would pummel passers, pound receivers and ultimately produce enough turnovers to keep the momentum on Pittsburgh's side. But this year feels different. The Steelers feel old and tired and just a step behind the teams they're contending with each week. It's the kind of reality that touches every strong franchise sooner or later.
Sure, Pittsburgh has an outside shot at reaching the postseason, but it will come down to the Steelers beating Cincinnati next week and not losing any more contests. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley talked about the Steelers still controlling their own destiny because of that possibility, but he also acknowledged the obvious. "Today, in particular, we didn't tackle well, gave up some big plays [and] allowed them to keep running after guys missed them," Woodley said. "We can't do that if we want to try to play in Super Bowls."
The way Woodley spoke, he sounded as if those were simple issues to fix. In reality, they have defined the Steelers over their past two losses. So while they're talking about destiny being on their side, they should also think about some far less promising possibilities. After all they've done in their proud history, this may be one of those years where their best just isn't good enough.