Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Steelers struggling to put Texans loss behind them



By Alan Robinson
The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH - For an NFL contender, dealing with a loss is never easy at this time of the year. Losing corrodes a team's confidence and weakens its playoff situation, and ultimately may create a road game next month rather than a home game.

What complicates matters for the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1) is they're dealing with much more than a loss, even a totally unexpected one to a team that seemingly had no way to defeat them.

The Steelers still were struggling Monday with a 24-6 defeat to the first-year Houston Texans that was historical in its magnitude because never before had an NFL team so dominated another and lost.

Houston was outgained 422-47 - the fewest yards ever gained by a winning team - and had only one first down after its opening series. The Texans went three-and-out on all but three of 12 possessions and never crossed the 50 without the aid of a penalty or a turnover.

Conversely, the Steelers moved the ball efficiently all day, piling up yard after yard against a defense that ranked among the NFL's upper third. But everything they did well came unraveled with three turnovers - two interceptions and a fumble - that the Texans returned for touchdowns.

"It's frustrating because we know we were our own enemy," running back Jerome Bettis said Monday. "Our biggest nemesis was ourselves."

The Steelers might have been the toughest opponent on their own schedule. As quarterback Tommy Maddox said, "The more you watched it, the more sick you became."

Maddox, who created all three turnover touchdowns, expects to take all the heat for the loss. What he also expects is another chance - namely, to start Sunday against Carolina (5-8).

Maddox was given no indication Monday by coach Bill Cowher he would be benched for Kordell Stewart, who directed victories over the Jaguars and Bengals when Maddox was out with injuries the two previous weeks.

"He didn't say anything else," Maddox said. "I'm going to expect to start until he tells me I'm not."

The Steelers have a history of losing to first-year teams; this was the third time they've done so since 1995. But history doesn't give a clear picture of what might happen next.

In 1995, they rebounded from a loss to expansion Jacksonville and made it to the Super Bowl. In 1999, they had the playoffs in sight until a devastating loss to first-year Cleveland sent them skidding on a six-game losing streak.

"I'm probably more disappointed today (Monday) than I was last night because you realize there were a lot of good things we did," Maddox said. "But you've got to get past it because you realize we're in first place (in the AFC North) and we control our own destiny."

Just not as well as they did a week ago, when they took a 11/2-game lead over the Browns (7-6) into a stretch of three home games in the final four weeks. That lead is down to a half-game, thanks to yet another perplexing game in a puzzling Steelers season.

They lost only once during a recent eight-game stretch, yet have frequently performed well below the standards of a team was 13-3 last year and was favored to win the AFC.

"Yeah, it's definitely underachieving when you don't win a game you're supposed to win. That's clearly the case," Bettis said. "When you don't score and give them touchdowns they don't earn, it's going to be an underachievement. But it's not a season of underachievement, it's a game."

Maddox said what is important now is to not get sidetracked by one game, even one so bad.

"It's about getting into the dance and seeing what will happen," he said. "It doesn't matter if you're 9-7 and get into the playoffs that way if you win the Super Bowl.

"I've been in situations where this team had to lose or this team had to ... and we don't have to worry about that. We've got a chance to win our division - and we don't have to worry about anybody but ourselves."

Right now, that might be their biggest worry.




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