PITTSBURGH — Two years later, Brett Keisel is still stunned.
Ask the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end how the then-defending Super Bowl champions lost five straight games late in the 2009 season to knock themselves out of playoff contention and his rapidly expanding beard shakes from side to side.
"We missed the playoffs by one game, one whole game," Keisel said. "You think about what you could have done differently. It can haunt you."
Perhaps the most stunning loss during the slide was a 27-24 overtime defeat in Kansas City, a game in which the Steelers outgained the then-2-7 Chiefs by more than 200 yards and enjoyed a 10-point second-half lead.
Three turnovers, eight penalties and an uncharacteristic late defensive collapse sent Pittsburgh into a tailspin. Losses to woeful Cleveland and Oakland followed even after coach Mike Tomlin promised to "unleash hell" in December.
Could the Steelers have made a legitimate bid for back-to-back championships? Keisel isn't sure. The only thing he knows is three meltdowns against so-so teams cost his team the opportunity.
The memory remains fresh, one of the reasons why the Steelers (7-3) have been one of the NFL's best teams over the last two years heading into Sunday's visit to struggling Kansas City (4-6).
Pittsburgh is 23-8 (playoffs included) since the streak ended. The Steelers and the Falcons are the only two teams in the league who have not lost to a club with a losing record during that span.
In a league where there seems to be at least one head-scratcher every weekend (Baltimore at Seattle two weeks ago, for example) that's saying something.
The Steelers insist there is no secret. At a place where "the standard is the standard," the standard doesn't mention losing to teams you're supposed to beat.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger points to a no-nonsense attitude set by the team leadership that trickles through the locker room.
"I think a lot of the guys' mentality is, we don't look at a team as, their record is not that good, we need to play down a level," he said. "We need to play at our level of play, regardless of who we play. We just judge it off our expectation of ourselves."
And the Steelers expect to get a little payback on Sunday night against the injury-ravaged Chiefs, who claimed quarterback Kyle Orton off waivers Wednesday in an attempt to salvage their quickly unraveling season.
Though veteran tight end Heath Miller called the loss to Kansas City "a long time ago," the Steelers are hoping to avoid dÉjÀ vu.
Nose tackle Chris Hoke points out there are few feelings more frustrating than peeking at the schedule when the season is drawing to a close and thinking, what if?
"The last thing you want is to look back and go, 'man, if we'd only have gotten this one, if we'd only have gotten that one,'" Hoke said. "That's why we need to win this game. You've got to get 'em when you can get 'em."
The Steelers will try to get 'em with Roethlisberger playing through a fractured right thumb. He participated in a full practice Wednesday and expects to start against the Chiefs, though the thumb will be constantly monitored.
He's worked hard with the team's training staff to try and make the thumb comfortable, though he acknowledged it will be impossible to make it pain-free.
"We've done a good job of getting to where we think we're OK, we're happy with it now," Roethlisberger said.
Keeping his hand out of harm's way following a pass will help, and the Steelers shuffled their offensive line on Wednesday, moving Doug Legursky into Chris Kemoeatu's spot at left guard.
Kemoeatu termed the move a "demotion." Though he is one of the team's best run-blockers, the seven-year veteran has struggled at times in pass protection. Pittsburgh has allowed 31 sacks this season, fourth-most in the league.
The Steelers were hoping to avoid the kind of line shuffling that became the norm during the first half of the season due to injury, yet Legursky's recovery from a dislocated toe and his solid, if unspectacular, play helped put him back in the lineup.
Kemoeatu didn't grouse while talking about the move. He's been around long enough to know there's not a lot of room for that on one of the league's most veteran teams.
Wide receiver Hines Ward took a drop on the depth chart with grace two weeks ago, and he could be dropped another rung if Emmanuel Sanders returns from knee surgery. Sanders practiced on Wednesday and may play for the first time in a month.
Whoever is on the field for the defending AFC champions will be reminded about the team's last trip to Kansas City, a day when the hopes of a third set of back-to-back Super Bowl titles started to come tumbling down.
Those kind of slip-ups have been rare the last 23 months, and with the Steelers in a tight battle with Baltimore and Cincinnati for the AFC North title, there is no margin for error.
"We're not going to let guys slide," veteran linebacker Larry Foote said. "We know what's at stake. We're always playing for something here, and it's an every-week thing. One week off and you don't know where that leads."
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