After a typically grueling AFC North battle on Sunday, the reality of what just happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers hit them like a splash of cold water to the face.
The facts are true and cannot be altered. Wishing and praying won't change circumstances.
The Steelers will not win the division—that honor belongs to the Cincinnati Bengals—and now face the challenge of defending their world championship via the wild card route. Not what the franchise envisioned when the season began, for sure, but stone cold reality has a way of dashing one's dreams sometimes.
The Bengals own the AFC North. There's zero doubt about that now. Any hope the Steeler Nation has of a collapse won't happen, unless Carson Palmer goes down in a heap once again.
Cincinnati owns two wins each over Pittsburgh and Baltimore, are 5-0 in the division, and have a cupcake schedule down the stretch. The record of their last seven opponents is a paltry 24-37 combined, with only the Vikings and the Chargers as serious threats. The Bengals' next three games are against Oakland (2-7), Cleveland (1-7), and Detroit (1-8).
Of course, miracles can happen, but I highly doubt it in this case. This isn't the typical Cincinnati team we're used to. The Bengals came to town and beat Pittsburgh by playing Steeler football—fast, physical, and in your face. They aren't going to fade away.
Technically, the Bengals have a two-game lead in the division. Pittsburgh can't afford to lose another game.
One Steeler has already come to terms with the situation.
"I mean, they're going to be division champs," Steelers S Ryan Clark said. "[We] already know we have to beat them with the overall record. That's tough. We have to win out. Don't get me wrong, I'd give one of my arms to play them again."
All hope is not gone.
The Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006 as a wild card entry and have the talent to make a run at it again, but the 2009 version has some glaring weaknesses the 2005-06 squad didn't have.
The special teams' coverage units are horrible. The three touchdowns they've given up this season is all the evidence you need. Add an offensive coordinator who abandons the run when adversity strikes, along with a team that loses its composure late in games and turns the ball over too much, and you have a recipe for an early playoff exit or, worse, no playoff berth at all.
It also doesn't help the cause knowing Troy Polamalu hasn't been 100 percent all season and probably won't be the rest of the way.
Some things can be changed right now.
Mike Tomlin cannot allow Rashard Mendenhall to touch the football only 13 times. It's inexcusable. He's been the team's best offensive player the last four or five weeks, and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians takes the ball out of his hands. Unreal.
Arians called 40 passes and only 18 runs against the Bengals. That won't get a win against a good team. You need some sort of balance to succeed in the NFL. Being one-dimensional gets you nothing but beat.
The red zone offense must improve. Against the Bengals, the Steelers had a total of 16 yards, counting sacks and penalties, in the red area. Four red zone trips, four field goals. There's the game in a nutshell.
Pittsburgh gets a break in its schedule and a chance to right the ship with three of its next four games against teams with losing records: Kansas City (2-7), Oakland (2-7), and Cleveland (1-7).
What has to happen now is an adjustment of goals, attitude, and a refocused commitment to excellence. The Steelers must play with a sense of urgency. Every game counts. There is no margin for error.