PITTSBURGH (AP) – The short flight home from Baltimore was quiet, typical for whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers lose.
Yet there was an undercurrent of dismay running through the cabin on Sunday evening after a baffling misstep against the depleted Ravens that linebacker Ryan Shazier couldn’t help but notice.
“It felt different,” Shazier said on Monday. “I don’t know to other guys, but to me it almost felt like a bad dream or a scary movie. You just don’t expect that to happen but it did.”
And suddenly a team that looked as dangerous as any in the NFL now finds itself with its nose pressed against the glass on the outside of the playoff picture looking in with a week to go.
The Steelers (9-6) need to beat Cleveland next Sunday and hope the Buffalo Bills upset the New York Jets (10-5) for Pittsburgh to sneak into the postseason as a wild card.
Three dysfunctional hours in Baltimore – and a little help by a curious coaching decision by New England’s Bill Belichick that helped the Jets upset the Patriots in overtime to move into the sixth seed – took whatever momentum the Steelers had gathered during a 10-game December winning streak and tossed it away like an unwanted Christmas gift.
“We got our butts kicked,” running back DeAngelo Williams said.
And now a resume that features wins over Arizona, Cincinnati and Denver also includes a pair of losses to the barely recognizable Ravens. Yes, that really was Ryan Mallett, Javorius Allen and Kyle Juszczyk pushing Pittsburgh to the brink of elimination.
“Right now, we shot ourselves in the foot,” linebacker James Harrison said. “We’ve got to go out there and (win Sunday) and hope we get help.”
Something that hasn’t really worked out when Pittsburgh is forced to scoreboard watch in Week 17.
In 2013, the Steelers put together an improbable rise from a 2-6 start to climb to 8-8. Only a missed field goal by Kansas City’s Ryan Succop against San Diego in Week 17 prevented Pittsburgh from moving on to the playoffs.
Six years ago, the defending Super Bowl champions won their final three games to finish 9-7, but missed out on tiebreakers and the Ravens and Jets qualified instead.
The Steelers went 4-1 down the stretch in 2000, but couldn’t make it as Indianapolis grabbed the last wild-card spot when Minnesota – already assured of a division title – rested its starters for much of the game and the Colts rolled in the regular-season finale.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, from a typically aggressive fourth-down call in the first quarter on Sunday that ended with Williams getting stopped to a pair of interceptions by Ben Roethlisberger that the Ravens turned into 10 points.
The Steelers have spent much of the season insisting the only thing that can stop them is themselves and then went out and proved it.
“We controlled our destiny, but we gave the ball away (Sunday) and we can’t do that,” Roethlisberger said. “I can’t do that.”
A defense that spent the opening half missing tackles and letting the well-traveled Mallett do whatever he wanted didn’t help.
Pittsburgh’s offense was able to overcome those mistakes while rallying to beat the Broncos. Not this time, continuing a puzzling trend in which the Steelers tend to struggle against losing teams. Pittsburgh is 4-7 in its past 11 games against opponents under .500.
While Williams is quick to point out facing a division opponent for the second time is never easy regardless of who is in uniform, that doesn’t appear to be a problem when Pittsburgh faces the Browns.
The Steelers can only hope to extend their mastery over Cleveland – Pittsburgh is 28-6 against the Browns since the franchise returned in 1999 – and hope for good news from Buffalo on the scoreboard.
“The scoreboard is going to be in the stadium so I think everybody is going to be looking at the scoreboard towards the end of the game,” Shazier said, “but we’ve got to handle our business first.”
NOTES: The Steelers placed fullback Roosevelt Nix on injured reserve on Monday and promoted linebacker L.J. Fort to the active roster. Nix broke a bone in his foot against the Ravens.
(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)