Technically the Pittsburgh Steelers lead the AFC North but based on recent results they hardly look like division leaders and are not assured of a playoff appearance.
Pittsburgh is 7-5-1 and slightly ahead of the 7-6 Baltimore Ravens in the division. After losing to the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers, it allowed the 3-10 Oakland Raiders to get two fourth quarter touchdowns and took a 24-21 loss.
The Steelers seemed to be on cruise control to their fifth straight playoff berth when they took the field in Denver on Nov. 25. Then they blew a 17-10 lead, followed it by allowing 18 points in the fourth at home against the Chargers and allowed 14 more fourth-quarter points in Oakland on Sunday.
During the ill-timed slump, the Steelers are being outscored 39-14 in fourth quarters. Those are hardly numbers good enough to secure victories and the Steelers know it, especially since New England and New Orleans are next on the docket.
"It just frickin (stinks)," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "These three-point games, it (stinks) to be on the wrong end of them."
"It's been brutal, man, I'm not going to lie," guard David DeCastro said. "Frustration's definitely setting in, you can see it. It's tough, man, you put a lot of energy into this sport, a lot of work into it. Losing games like this, everyone taking turns, it's just tough."
Instead of getting so-called easy victories, the Steelers are making things difficult on themselves and doing it at a bad time, especially with Ben Roethlisberger possibly dealing with a rib injury for the rest of the season.
He spent most of the second half on the bench with the unspecified injury and then was forced back with just over five minutes left when Pittsburgh gave up the lead. He completed all six of his passes and connected on a 1-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith Schuster.
Then the defense couldn't make a play, allowing a 39-yard pass to get the Raiders into the red zone and then allowing Oakland to score a touchdown on fourth down with 21 seconds to go. Still the offense gave Pittsburgh a chance only to see Chris Boswell miss a 40-yard field goal with five seconds left.
The missed field goal was the latest in a string of shaky execution and followed yet another lengthy drive.
Two weeks ago, the Broncos marched 79 yards in 11 plays following a fumble by James Conner. Last week the Chargers moved 64 yards in 11 plays to win on a field goal as time expired and Sunday one of the league's worst teams moved 75 yards in eight plays, resulting in the touchdown that doomed the Steelers when Boswell missed.
"Everything's still ahead of us," DeCastro said. "We still control it, right? That's a little silver lining but, yeah, it's been brutal.
"It's a three-week season, that's all we got. If you could look back to the beginning of the season and say we'd be at this point now, leading the division still, right 'Let's go get it.'"
--QB Ben Roethlisberger finished 25 of 29 for 282 yards and two touchdowns although he sat for four series in the second half due to an unspecified rib injury. He is expected to play this week against New England.
--K Chris Boswell continued to struggle as the missed 40-yarder Sunday was his sixth miss in 16 field goal attempts. His five missed extra points also are the most among kickers, who played on Sunday.
--RB James Conner sat out Sunday's game with a sprained ankle.
--OT Marcus Gilbert missed his seventh straight game with a knee injury.
--RB Stevan Ridley scored his first touchdown of the season but only carried five times for four yards.