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The Pittsburgh Steelers are in first place in the AFC North, and they are in deep trouble

The Steelers may be in first place in the AFC North with three weeks to go, but they are still in very deep trouble.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Death rattle.

That’s the sound I hear when I place my little stethoscope on the chest of the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 24-21 loss to the Raiders on Sunday that leaves them at 7-5-1.

It’s just a matter of time at this point.

How crazy is that thought-process? I mean, the Steelers are still in first place in the AFC North, and they still control their own fate, which is to say they don’t need any help to punch their ticket to the postseason dance that will kickoff in approximately four weeks.

But why does it feel like 2009, when Pittsburgh needed multiple teams to lose in the final week just to make it to the playoffs as the sixth seed? Why does it feel like 2013, when, instead of a 7-5-1 record after 13 games, the Steelers were 5-8 and helplessly on the outside looking in when it came to any postseason aspirations?

Maybe it’s because the Steelers could be just temporary placeholders in the AFC North. Maybe it’s because their lead is only one-half game. Maybe it’s because they still have dates with the Patriots and Saints on their schedule, while the Ravens get to dance with the Buccaneers and Browns over the next three weeks.

Maybe it’s because Pittsburgh looks like a team that has lost whatever swagger it had built up over its six-game winning-streak. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem like a team that can close games out. Maybe it’s because it’s a team that simply can’t get out of it’s own way these days.

Xavier Grimble’s goal-line gaffe in Denver. James Washington’s Superman dive in Denver. James Conner’s fumble in that game. Ben Roethlisberger’s end zone interception with the game on the line.

The self-destruction a week later against the Chargers when Pittsburgh blew a 16-point lead. Roethlisberger’s bad passes. Joe Haden’s collision with Sean Davis that prevented an interception and allowed a touchdown. The missed calls by the officials. The implosion of the defense in the fourth quarter.

And, on Sunday, right when it looked like the Steelers would take control of the game against a hapless Raiders team, Roethlisberger sits out most of the second half with a rib injury that may or may not be serious and is ineffectively replaced by Joshua Dobbs, paving the way for the defense to implode yet again, and for Chris Boswell to slide even closer to the unemployment line.

In other words, it just doesn’t seem like the Steelers are a team of destiny these days, not unless that destination is home for the playoffs.

Sure, they control their own fate, but do you have confidence the Steelers can pull out victories over the Patriots and Saints in the coming weeks? If you do, why?

If the defense couldn’t stop Derek Carr with the season on the line, how is it going to stop Tom Brady or Drew Brees?

If Mike Tomlin didn’t think it was urgent to put Roethlisberger back into a four-point game against Oakland with the season literally on the line, what makes you think he’s going to make all the right moves against New England or New Orleans with the season even more literally on the line?

To put it in pro wrestling terms, the Steelers may be the reigning champion, while the Ravens are currently writhing around the ring, just trying to gather themselves. Unfortunately, some other wrestler just came out of nowhere (maybe the Rattlesnake, Stone Cold Steve Austin to keep the “rattle” theme going) and hit Pittsburgh in the back of the head with a holding chair; all Baltimore has to do now is gather itself in time to pin the unconscious champ.

It’s hard to imagine the Steelers kicking out before the count of three.