The fact the Browns have dropped their last four games – and three more before that for a seven-game losing streak – isn't really a shock in this nightmarish season to end all nightmarish seasons.
But the fact the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers have lost four straight, is not only just shocking, but knock-you-out-of-your-chair shocking. It would be hard to find a more shocking story in the NFL this year, in fact.
So while the 1-11 Browns try to salvage what's left of their season, the 6-6 Steelers will be trying to salvage their season – period – when the two teams meet on Thursday Night Football at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Two games after defeating the Browns in Pittsburgh 27-14 back on Oct. 18, the Steelers went to Denver and scored an impressive 28-10 victory over the Broncos on Monday Night Football to raise their record to 6-2. After a poor start in which they were 1-2, the Steelers had won five in a row and looked to be on track to competing for another Super Bowl title. It seemed as sure of a bet as someone bringing a Terrible Towel to the next game at Heinz Field.
What happened from that point was terrible, but not in conjunction with a towel – unless, of course, it's a crying towel. The Steelers have lost four straight by a combined total of 15 points, falling 18-12 to Cincinnati at home to drop the season series to the AFC North rival Bengals, 27-24 in overtime to the woeful Kansas City Chiefs, 20-17 in OT at Baltimore to fall behind the Ravens in the playoff chase, and then 27-24 to the abysmal Oakland Raiders – at Heinz Field, no less – last Sunday.
Of those four losses, including the last three by three points each, the hardest to swallow was the one to the dysfunctional, 4-8 Raiders. The Steelers had three leads in the fourth quarter but couldn't close the deal against Bruce Gradkowski and Co. Yes, that would be the same Bruce Gradkowski, a University of Toledo product, who passed for 18 yards with two interceptions for a 1.0 quarterback rating for the Browns in a 31-0 loss to Steelers at Heinz Field in the 2008 season finale.
In Sunday's game, he looked like Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler and Jim Plunkett all rolled into one, completing 20-of-33 attempts for 308 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner on a 11-yarder to a wide receiver by the name of Louis Murphy with just nine seconds left, completing a 10-play, 88-yard drive in 1:47.
But Gradkowski's performance against the Steelers is really not surprising in another respect in that everyone has been passing on this team. Baltimore's Joe Flacco completed 23-of-35 for 289 yards and one TD. The Chiefs' Matt Cassel hit on 15-of-30 for 248 yards and two scores. The Bengals' Carson Palmer was an efficient 18-of-30 for 178 yards.
The Steelers also gave up kickoff returns for TDs against the Bengals and Chiefs, the third and fourth such scores Pittsburgh had allowed in a five games. The streak began with the Browns' Joshua Cribbs racing 98 yards for a TD late in the second quarter of the teams' first meeting.
Now at .500, the Steelers are in real danger of missing the playoffs and not even having a chance of defending their Super Bowl crown.
That fact is not lost on no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin.
"We're not playing well enough to play winning football," the third-year mentor said in a conference call with the Cleveland media on Tuesday. "We're going through a pattern of behavior that's not conducive to winning. We need to acknowledge that and change that pattern of behavior.
"Good teams find ways to win. Bad teams don't."
And right now, the proud Steelers are a bad team – or at least a good team that's playing badly.
Yes, the Steelers have missed all-world safety Troy Polamalu, who has battled a knee injury all year. But Tomlin refuses to use it as an excuse.
"Troy has a unique skill set, but in terms of a standard of excellence for playing winning football, it shouldn't change what we do," Tomlin said. "We have guys who are capable of stepping in, and I truly believe we will respond, that we will fight our way out of this."
But time is running out. The Steelers can't afford to stub their toe against the Browns.
Admitted Tomlin, "We're in desperate need of a win."
A month ago, as the Steelers were returning home triumphantly from Denver with a 6-2 record and riding a five-game losing streak, who would have ever thought the Steelers coach would be saying that, or that his team would be in that predicament?