The Steelers' week has been filled with discontent, apologies and more losses. And no sooner did Hines Ward try to make amends by explaining what he meant by questioning Ben Roethlisberger's absence in the game in Baltimore, he put even more pressure on his teammates.
The Steelers play 3-8 Oakland on Sunday as they try to snap a three-game losing streak and claw their way back into a playoff spot.
"The playoffs officially begin for us this week. You lose, we're pretty much out of it," Ward said. "We know what's at stake. Our playoff season begins this weekend. This team knows if we lose we're pretty much out of it."
At 6-5, the Steelers are in the thick of the running for a wild-card playoff spot and, realistically, they might be able to go 4-1 as long as one of their victories includes Baltimore on Dec. 27.
They have two soft touches coming up at home vs. the Raiders and then at Cleveland next Thursday. They then finish with games against three teams in the playoff hunt: Green Bay and Baltimore at home, and at Miami.
"We're kind of in a situation where we need to win this weekend," tight end Heath Miller said. "All of our efforts need to be pointed in that direction and we'll see where we're at after that game."
The three-game losing skid is the first in the three seasons under coach Mike Tomlin. The AFC North Division has virtually been ceded to Cincinnati, which would have to go 2-3 while the Steelers go 5-0 for them to bungle the division title this time.
Ward apologized to his teammates Wednesday and talked at length with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger over his weekend comments.
"I apologized to the team today for having to even answer questions about this," Ward said.
As for he and Roethlisberger, "We talked. I'm not going to get into what was specifically said. The issue's been resolved."
Whether it can have a lingering effect on a team noted for its unity remains uncertain.
"This locker room is tight; we're a close-knit group," linebacker and captain James Farrior said. "Everybody is in it to win it, we're all in it for the same thing; we're just going to try to move forward."
The Steelers find themselves in a similar position to the one that faced them in 2005, when they were 7-5 and had to win their remaining four games to make the playoffs. They did just that to secure the AFC's sixth and final playoff spot, then won four more in the postseason to become Super Bowl champs.
"That (team's) makeup was different but it's a similar situation to that," Ward said. "Hopefully, we can just concentrate, get back on the winning track, beat Oakland and move on from there."
18th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series 9-8. The teams are even in Pittsburgh at 4-4. The Steelers have played the Raiders more times in the playoffs than any other team except Denver, both at six. The Raiders and Steelers are 3-3 in those six postseason games. They last met in 2006 in Oakland, a game won by the Raiders 20-13. The Raiders last played in Pittsburgh in 2004, a game won by the Steelers 24-21.
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