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Steelers backs against the wall in season finale
The Pittsburgh Steelers were excellent in close games last season. They were 8-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. It's why they won 13 games and earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
The Steelers this season aren't nearly as good, and it's the reason they need help entering the final week of the regular season in order to make it back to the playoffs. The Steelers are 5-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Their past three losses have all come by a field goal, and they had chances to win the games in the final minute and failed.
The 31-28 loss in New Orleans was the latest setback, and this one was costly. The Steelers must now win their regular-season finale against Cincinnati and hope the Browns beat the Ravens in Baltimore to earn a playoff berth.
"We didn't make enough plays to win," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "And really it was in some areas that have been common areas for us. We acknowledge that. Part of us getting ready this week is acknowledging that. We have to do a better job of taking care of the ball. We talked about how New Orleans hunts the ball. We turned the ball over twice in the waning moments of that game in scoring territory. It was significant."
Running back Stevan Ridley fumbled when the Steelers held a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Then late in the game, when the Steelers trailed by three points, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled when the Steelers were driving with a chance to tie the score or win.
The Steelers are minus-10 in turnover differential this season. It's hard to make the playoffs with that kind of number.
Giving up late scoring drives to opponents has been an ongoing problem as well. The Saints scored a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. The Raiders, Chargers and Broncos also had late touchdown or field-goal drives to beat the Steelers in the past few weeks.
"Obviously, we didn't get the necessary stop when we needed it late in the ball game," Tomlin said. "We had a couple of stops, stop opportunities in the game, fourth-down plays when seemingly we won the circumstance, but we didn't because of a penalty. We have to accept responsibility for that and work to play a cleaner brand of ball in those moments."
The NFL has the Steelers and Bengals and Browns and Ravens playing simultaneously Sunday afternoon at 4:25 p.m. That undoubtedly will increase the drama inside Heinz Field as fans watch the scoreboard as much as they watch the action on the field.
Steelers players and coaches, however, won't be consumed by watching for the Browns-Ravens score.
"We just focus on the things that are in our control," Tomlin said. "From that perspective, it's no different than any other week. We better handle business in our stadium. There are things going on in other stadiums that can affect us. But there are things going on in other stadiums every weekend that could affect our positioning. We better focus on the task at hand and that's our preparation and play as we push into Heinz Field on Sunday."
Former Browns player Joe Haden, who is in his second season with the Steelers, spoke to a few of his old teammates and is encouraging them to win this week.
"I've talked to a couple of them, giving them some motivation," Haden said. "I know they want to end on a good note."
Safety Sean Davis said he might have to get "a little something" for Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield if they can upset the Ravens.
SERIES HISTORY: 97th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 61-35. The Steelers have won the past seven and 10 of the past 11. The Steelers have won four of the past five at Heinz Field. The previous time the Steelers lost to the Bengals was in November of 2015, a 16-10 loss at Heinz Field. These two teams have met in the postseason twice, with the Steelers winning both matchups, including the most recent meeting in January of 2016. The Steelers beat the Bengals, 18-16, in an AFC wild-card game at Paul Brown Stadium.