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Amid distractions, Steelers face rare late-season must-win situation

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline during the Chargers game Dec. 2012.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Alan Robinson
Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 1:52 p.m.
 

Ben Roethlisberger is sorry. Rashard Mendenhall isn't.

The Steelers? They're not apologizing for their 7-7 record, if only because they're not conceding repentance is yet needed.

Beat the Bengals and Browns and make the playoffs despite losing 11 starters to multiple-game injuries, and the Steelers will make something out of a season seemingly gone astray, receiver Mike Wallace said.

“It's definitely disappointing, but we're still in the hunt, and we still control our own destiny,” Wallace said Wednesday. “We put ourselves in this position, and obviously we're upset with it. But we still have a chance, a very good chance, and I like our team with our backs against the wall. There's no other group I'd rather be with.”

Despite losing four of five, the Steelers can seize control of the second AFC wild card by beating the Bengals (8-6) Sunday at Heinz Field. While the Bengals are rolling with five wins in six games, they've dropped five straight and 10 of 12 to the Steelers, who could sweep the season series for a third consecutive year.

Playing such an important late-December game is uncommon for the Steelers. This is only the second time in nine seasons they've gone into their final two games needing to win to make the playoffs. They won their last two in 2009 but didn't get in with a 9-7 record.

So to eliminate any distractions, Roethlisberger apologized for “the storm” he created Sunday by criticizing the play-calling after a 27-24 overtime loss in Dallas.

Roethlisberger was unhappy — and said so — that the no-huddle offense wasn't used and tight end Heath Miller wasn't targeted in the second half. His remarks appeared to be directed toward offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

“I came in (Monday), and I apologized to Todd, I apologized to Mike (Tomlin), and I apologized to Mr. (Dan) Rooney because I let my frustrations jump out after a game,” Roethlisberger said. “I don't usually do that. Usually I keep it under control. I was just frustrated with myself, and I'll be better at that.”

While he doesn't always agree with Haley and Tomlin, Roethlisberger said, “I'm sure it's that way with every position player and their coach. … That doesn't mean anything.”

Mendenhall, by contrast, felt no need to apologize for failing to attend the Chargers game Dec. 9, even though he knew he wouldn't play. He drew a one-game suspension from Tomlin and lost more than $40,000 in salary.

Perhaps because the fate of their season could be determined Sunday, Mendenhall's teammates appear to have moved on from the unexplained absence of what now is a third-line running back.

Wallace said it's been an unusual season in that the Steelers keep losing close games — five by six points or fewer — amid the never-ending run of injuries, yet they still could be a postseason team.

“It could make the story a lot sweeter,” Wallace said. “We're 7-7, but if we win these last two, we're in the tournament, and from there we're 0-0.”

The Steelers must convince themselves that these aren't the same old Bengals, who are 5-2 since losing to Pittsburgh 24-17 on Oct. 21.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the former Patriots running back, has averaged 108.6 yards over his past five games, and Andy Dalton has 12 touchdown passes and three interceptions in his past six. The defense has allowed more than 13 points only once since Nov. 4.

“This is not the same Bengals team we've seen before. This is a Bengals team that is really executing well, and guys are locked in,” Wallace said. “This is not the same team, the Bengals that are just going to go cruising through, laying down. They're really good.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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