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Steelers trying not to repeat ’98 collapse |

Steelers trying not to repeat ’98 collapse

| Sunday, December 15, 2002 12:00 a.m

The Steelers have been here before. Oh, yeah. Been there. Done that.

A season of lofty expectations (sound familiar?) was spiraling out of control four years ago, just like it appears to be today as the Steelers try to keep their heads above water in a 1 p.m. game at Heinz Field against the Carolina Panthers.

The year was 1998, and the Steelers — one season removed from a berth in the AFC Championship game — were 7-4 after a bizarre overtime loss to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

This year, the Steelers, who played in last season’s conference title game, were 7-4-1 only a few days after Thanksgiving. They subsequently fell to 7-5-1 after a, uh, bizarre loss to the Houston Texans last Sunday.

In both seasons, the Steelers were just hanging around first place, wondering if they belonged. In 1998, they were a game off the lead in the AFC Central as late as Nov. 26. Today, they own a half-game lead in the AFC North.

Then, the Steelers fell apart in the last month of the season, losing their final five games for the first time in 30 years and finishing 7-9. Now, the Steelers look to be coming unglued after a 6-1-1 stretch that ended last Sunday. A 7-8-1 season is certainly not the most incredible thing that could happen this season.

The difference between the two teams• Plenty, according to Jerome Bettis and Lee Flowers, who were starters then and will start today against the Panthers.

“It’s a totally different makeup of the football team,” Bettis said. “There are different players (only 11 were on both teams). You can’t compare apples to oranges.

“That was a young football team (having recently lost Neil O’Donnell, Rod Woodson and Greg Lloyd). This is an experienced football team.”

“This talent is going to be around here for a while,” said cornerback Dewayne Washington, who was in his first year in Pittsburgh in ’98. “I don’t see us slipping off and sliding like that at all.”

Flowers didn’t even want to consider the comparison, preferring to remain focused on the business at hand.

“Right now, down the street in Cleveland, they’re hoping we lose this game. So, we can’t worry about the ’98 team,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. There’s nobody in this locker room but (seven starters) from ’98.”

No doubt, there is a more solid structure in place in the Steelers organization today. In 1998, coach Bill Cowher wasn’t getting along with his director of football operations, Tom Donahoe, and he eventually took away the play-calling responsibilities from offensive coordinator Ray Sherman. Kordell Stewart was struggling as the starting quarterback.

Today, Cowher works well with the front office and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who has Cowher’s total trust. Tommy Maddox has faltered lately, opening up a quarterback controversy, but he still is a more accurate passer now than Stewart was then.

So, why is the team only marginally better off than it was in 1998•

Mistakes. The Steelers lead the AFC with 31 turnovers.

“We’re turning the football over way too many times,” Cowher said. “The correlation of wins and losses is coming down to turnovers.”

The Steelers have time to fix what ails them. The Panthers (5-8) lost eight games in a row earlier this season, and — this late in the season on a wintry day in Pittsburgh — they may not be able to do better than their current two-game winning streak. Like the Texans, Carolina is a team the Steelers should beat, easily, if they are true Super Bowl contenders.

The Steelers can win the division and, possibly, secure a first-round playoff bye, but they probably have to win their final three games to do it.

“If you want it, it’s in front of you,” Bettis said. “If you don’t, you go home. We get an opportunity to see what guys are made of.”

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