The Steelers knew all along that Sunday's game in Cleveland would be a tough one, what with Pittsburgh's injury-depleted roster held together by duct tape. Even in their worst nightmares, they likely did not imagine the mess that actually unfolded.
Playing against a 2-8 Cleveland team that they had beaten in 17 of their last 18 matchups, the Steelers turned the ball over a staggering eight times en route to a 20-14 loss. The setback was Pittsburgh's second straight and left it in extremely shaky shape in the AFC playoff picture, let alone in the North division race.
With starting QB Ben Roethlisberger still sidelined and backup Byron Leftwich also out of the lineup, the Steelers turned their offense over to veteran Charlie Batch. And he, quite frankly, was awful.
Making his first start since last December and just his fourth since 2008, Batch threw three interceptions and finished with a QB rating of 38.5. He hardly deserves all the blame, though, since his teammates -- at least on offense -- followed him into the depths, committing five additional turnovers.
All four of the Steelers' active running backs (Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Chris Rainey and Isaac Redman) coughed up the football, and wideout Emmanuel Sanders put the cherry on top with a fumble on the game's final play. At least he can be forgiven since his miscue came with Pittsburgh running the old "Stanford-Cal" play, needing 84 yards for a touchdown.
Mendenhall's fumble came on the Steelers' second offensive play -- they led 7-0 at that point, thanks to a Lawrence Timmons pick-6 of Brandon Weeden. Redman and Dwyer each gave one up in the second quarter. And Rainey lost possession as he was twisted awkwardly to the turf late in the fourth quarter, with Pittsburgh trying to drive for a winning touchdown.
All told, the Steelers fumbled seven times (they managed to recover three), and Cleveland scored 17 points off Pittsburgh's turnovers.
Adding injury to insult, right tackle Mike Adams had to be carted off with an ankle injury, thinning Pittsburgh's ranks even further.
The Steelers had a shot in Week 11 to tie Baltimore for first place in the AFC North; seven days later, their outlook is much bleaker. Their loss Sunday, coupled with Cincinnati's win, pulled the Bengals into a tie with the Steelers for the conference's final wild-card spot, with Miami lurking just a game back.
Pittsburgh heads into Baltimore next Sunday, and it's hard to imagine this team competing -- let alone scoring -- in its current state. Despite the return of Plaxico Burress, Batch had no luck generating any offense through the air. Neither Burress nor Mike Wallace caught a single pass, and the Steelers' biggest play in the passing game came when Burress drew a pass interference call in the end zone late in the second quarter.
Just as in that Week 11 loss to Baltimore, the Pittsburgh defense played well enough to win Sunday. Aside from Timmons' interception return, the Steelers also sacked Weeden four times and gave their offense a chance several times in the fourth quarter.
With Batch at the helm and a butter-fingered crop of players surrounding him, though, that solid defense was not enough for Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger will no doubt do whatever he can to rush back for next Sunday's showdown in Baltimore. Without him and a much more focused effort from the rest of the offense, the Steelers may not stand a chance against their arch-rivals.