The Super Bowl hangover has officially arrived in full force for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It started as a light wind, but now rampages at category five hurricane status.
Who would have thought that 11 games into the 2009 season the Steelers would be 6-5 and fighting for their playoff lives?
Who could have predicted the defense would consistently play flat late in games, the locker room would be in turmoil, and festering anger and frustration would cause the ultimate team player to call out his star quarterback on national TV?
This is the sad state the defending champions are in.
Let's not sugarcoat this. If the Steelers don't get their act together soon, like right now, the playoffs are history.
Pittsburgh has lost three straight games and is close to sliding free-fall down the slippery slope.
The rest of the team should heed what DE Brett Keisel said after the loss to the Ravens last night:
"We've got to win out. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. We've got to win out in order for us to be playing in January."
A tall order.
Can it be done? The schedule says yes.
Beating the Ravens and Packers would put Pittsburgh in pretty good shape for a playoff birth, but mark my words, it won't be easy by any stretch. They can't afford to lose focus or have a letdown. The Kansas City game proved that much.
The locker room is in disarray. There can be zero argument against that now. Not after last night.
The seeds of discontent were sewed last week when LB James Harrison stated he felt they weren't playing together as a team. The word of division in the locker room spread. Coach Mike Tomlin downplayed it in his weekly press conference.
Just when Tomlin thought it blew over, Hines Ward went and threw grease right on the fire. Ward, the heart and soul of the Steelers, called QB Ben Roethlisberger out, and on national television to boot.
Speaking with Bob Costas on a taped portion of the NBC pregame show, Ward talked about the locker room being "like a 50/50 toss-up" over whether Roethlisberger should have played last night despite a concussion from seven days earlier.
"It's almost like a 50/50 toss-up in the locker room: Should he play? Shouldn't he play? It's really hard to say. I've been out there dinged up; the following week, got right back out there. Ben practiced all week. He split time with Dennis Dixon. And then to find out that he's still having some headaches and not playing and it came down to the doctors didn't feel that they were going to clear him or not—it's hard to say. Unless you're the person [himself]. ...I've lied to a couple of doctors saying I'm straight, I feel good when I know that I'm not really straight.
"This game is almost like a playoff game. It's almost a must-win. I could see some players or teammates questioning, like 'It's just a concussion. I've played with a concussion before."
Wow! Strong words indeed.
Ward attempted to downplay his comments after the game, but the damage has been done.
Words can cause as much, if not more, pain than physical abuse. No matter how much the doctors try and spin it, the all-time franchise leader in every receiving category implied that Roethlisberger wasn't tough enough to play last night. In essence, according to Ward, Big Ben let the team down.
And notice he said the rest of the guys are 50/50 on the issue. That sounds like a divided locker room to me.
Tomlin needs to get these guys on the same page in a hurry or the season could be lost.
Injuries, coupled with tension and frustration, have spilled over into their on-field performance.
For the fourth time this season, the defense couldn't hold a lead in the fourth quarter. Don't blame Dixon's pick for the loss. He played a decent game under the circumstances. It was the defense, or lack thereof, that let Ray Rice and company rip them up in overtime.
This squad was made of tough, Pittsburgh steel last season, and they won their sixth ring because of it. This year that steel is rusting due to injuries and internal strife.
Now, with the season on the brink, only Tomlin and his staff can repair the damage and get the Steelers back on track.