PITTSBURGH - Casey Hampton believes greatness is still within reach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, even if at the moment the only thing Hampton's team has a firm grasp on is maddening inconsistency.
"Going forward I feel like we're going to win every game," the veteran nose tackle said. "That's what we've got to do to get in the playoffs."
Better that than try to rely on the kind of help the Steelers received on Sunday, when a demoralizing 34-24 home loss to San Diego did minimal damage to their postseason hopes. Pittsburgh ended the day in the same position it began, holding onto the AFC's final wild card spot.
The grip, however, is sure to get slippery if things don't turn around quickly.
"We can't be happy just because other teams lost and we're still in it," linebacker Larry Foote said. "It's one of those gut-checking times."
Maybe it's a good thing the next three weeks hardly look like gimmes. Pittsburgh has done its best work this season when backed into a corner, and a road trip to Dallas (7-6) followed by home games against AFC North rivals Cincinnati (7-6) and quickly improving Cleveland (5-8) to wrap up the regular season is sure to get the Steelers' attention.
If not, a season that looked promising a month ago will end before the calendar flips to 2013.
"Good teams have to find a way to win," defensive end Brett Keisel.
Even if it's hard to tell which side of the equation the Steelers are on at the moment. A resume that includes wins on the road at Baltimore, Cincinnati and the New York Giants also includes losses to Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and the Chargers, who are a combined 17-35.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can't quite put a finger on why the Steelers play so well against good teams and so poorly against also-rans. And unlike the losses to the Browns, Raiders and Titans, this one wasn't even close.
The Chargers, finishing out the string under likely lame-duck coach Norv Turner, dominated the first 40 minutes and built a 27-3 lead en route to winning in Pittsburgh during the regular season for the first time in franchise history.
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers picked on Steelers cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown relentlessly. The duo, getting extended playoff time in place of injured starter Ike Taylor, struggled against the Chargers' big wide receivers. San Diego converted 12 of 22 third downs, with 11 of them coming through the air, and all but two of them coming with Allen and Brown in coverage.
Coach Mike Tomlin actually benched Brown in the second half in favor of Josh Victorian, who was activated from the practice squad an hour before game time.
"We didn't make the necessary plays that we needed to make," Allen said. "We have to be better as a whole. We just have to be better."
Something the Steelers tend to be against the league's better teams. Pittsburgh's high points this fall have come in an inspiring 24-20 win over the Giants Nov. 4, and an invigorating 23-20 comeback triumph in Baltimore last week.
They cruised past the Washington Redskins with ease, crushed the New York Jets and handled the Philadelphia Eagles when it looked like their cross-state rivals had a pulse.
The key to those victories, however, came in lights-out defense and a hint of a running game. The Steelers had neither against the Chargers. Jonathan Dwyer managed all of 32 yards rushing, or one more than Roethlisberger gained on five last-option scrambles.
Though Roethlisberger passed for 285 yards and three scores, most of the yards and all of the touchdowns came after San Diego had the game firmly in hand.
Roethlisberger, as he tends to do, took responsibility for the lack of production though he was hardly helped out by his wide receivers or his short-handed offensive line.
Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both watched deep balls that could have changed the game bounce harmlessly away in the first half and Roethlisberger spent long portions of the afternoon under significant duress.
Pittsburgh will continue to shuffle the line next week after left guard Willie Colon went down with a knee injury in the first half. Center Maurkice Pouncey moved from center to guard, with Doug Legursky taking over for Pouncey. Putting a line together on the fly is nothing new for the Steelers, who did it with great aplomb two years ago en route to the Super Bowl.
At this point, nobody is thinking that far down the road. And after getting plenty of help on Sunday, Pittsburgh knows it's time to start helping itself if it wants to play into January.
"Our goals are still big," Foote said. "We have to correct this thing and make a commitment."