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Steelers look for inspiration as late-season slump drags on

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace makes a catch behind the Cowboys' Gerald Sensabaugh on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace makes a catch behind the Cowboys' Gerald Sensabaugh on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Steelers' offensive line picks up Ben Roethlisberger after he threw a second-quarter touchdown to Heath Miller against the Cowboys on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em> Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Steelers' offensive line picks up Ben Roethlisberger after he threw a second-quarter touchdown to Heath Miller against the Cowboys on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, 7:38 p.m.
 

Inside the Dallas Cowboys' jubilant locker room, Dez Bryant slapped hands with his teammates even after the ball of tape was stripped from his broken index finger.

Bryant wasn't feeling much pain moments after the Cowboys surged into a three-way tie in the NFC East with a 27-24 overtime victory over the Steelers before a crowd of nearly 96,000 at Cowboys Stadium.

“When you're a coach … and a guy has that determination, and shows that mental and physical toughness and passion for playing, it's contagious,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said.

Eventually, the painkillers won't mask Bryant's pain. Yet, his gutsy call to duty continues to resonate with a team that leaned on him for an inspirational lift amid the tragedy that claimed the life of teammate Jerry Brown.

“He certainly is playing with some risks, but he was inspirational out there to everybody involved in the organization,” Dallas owner Jerry Jones said. “He wanted to give everything he had.”

Unlike the Cowboys — once down on their luck after a 3-5 start — the bewildered Steelers are still searching for inspiration.

Or someone who can lift them from the doldrums of a five-game skid that has one shining moment: a stunning road conquest of the suddenly reeling Baltimore Ravens, whose abject failures in three woeful performances have served as a life raft to keep afloat the Steelers' dwindling postseason hopes.

The Steelers enter their rematch with the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Heinz Field with their backs against the wall. Their confidence appears shaken by inconsistency one week, then indecision the next.

The Steelers have endured perhaps more than their share of injuries. However, they haven't been inspired by the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or safety Troy Polamalu or wide receiver Antonio Brown (ankle). Incredibly, they were moved only minimally by the thousands of uproariously enthusiastic Steelers fans whose roars were more thunderous than the Cowboys' faithful.

Of course, there were puzzling moments of indecision this deep into the season. It kept the Steelers from countering the Cowboys' emotional and inspirational edge.

• On the Steelers' first possession, newly designated feature back Jonathan Dwyer couldn't have been inspired when forced to share the team's first three carries with Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey.

• Cornerback Curtis Brown had to figure he would start with Cortez Allen out, but rookie free agent Josh Victorian was given the job instead. He was schooled repeatedly by Miles Austin.

• Antonio Brown, with the game tied, 24-24, misjudged a punt that would have given the Steelers the ball near the 40. Dallas downed the ball at the 20 with 1:47 left in regulation.

Remarkably, the Steelers were in contention despite the swelling uncertainty that finally doomed them early in overtime when cornerback Brandon Carr intercepted Roethlisberger to deliver a decisive blow that put the Steelers in a must-win situation against the Bengals.

“Nobody is feeling sorry for us,” Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said.

If the Steelers can't inspire each other, then perhaps they can take comfort in the numbers that decisively favor them against their last two opponents. The Bengals have beaten them only twice in 11 games, and the Cleveland Browns haven't swept them in the regular season since 1988.

Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

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