PITTSBURGH (AP) – Hours after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ worst loss in more than two years, there were no apologies from coach Bill Cowher.

There was no mea culpa for the failed onside kick at the start of the second half that the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts quickly converted into a touchdown and a 16-point lead en route to their 26-7 victory Monday night – the Steelers’ second loss in a row.

“The call was made to try to get us a spark and get us another possession,” Cowher said Tuesday. “That’s my decision. If it works, it’s a good play. If it doesn’t, you’re open to second guessing, which is the nature of this business. But I have no second thoughts about that, I really don’t.”

Cowher was so certain the play would work, he considered opening the game with it had the Steelers kicked off. He also thinks it would have worked to start the second half – based on how the Colts align themselves for kickoff returns – “if we had executed it the right way.”

So, rather than spending much of his weekly news conference reviewing a game in which the Steelers trailed 7-0 less than two minutes into the game, Cowher preferred to issue a challenge to his players to get better before Sunday’s game against Cincinnati.

Despite playing in one of the NFL’s biggest games all season the night before, Cowher said the Bengals’ game is bigger for his team.

“Obviously, it’s the biggest game of the year, and we all know what’s at stake,” he said.

If the Steelers win, they will be tied for the division lead but, will effectively own it because they will have swept the Bengals (8-3) in head-to-head play. That means they would need only to stay tied with Cincinnati for the final four weeks of the season to win their fourth division title since the AFC North was formed in 2001.

Should they lose, they would trail the Bengals by two games with four to play.

, including difficult games against the Bears at home and at the Vikings. That could prove too big a difference to overcome, and could put the Steelers into a jumbled mix for a wild-card spot.

No wonder Cowher talked a lot more about Sunday than he did about Monday night, which represented the Steelers’ worst regular-season defeat since a 33-13 loss to Cleveland on Oct. 5, 2003.

“We’ve got to play better than we’re playing,” Cowher said. “There’s no margin for error. They’re playing with a lot of confidence and at a high level. … But the opportunity is right there. If you have the opportunity to win this game, you have a chance to control a lot of your destiny. But we have to play a lot better than we are right now and a sense of urgency to get there. “

Cowher also said:

-The offensive line that sent three starters to the Pro Bowl last season needs to pick up its play after the Steelers rushed for 86 yards and Roethlisberger was sacked three times.

“People right now are getting after us pretty good,” he said. “We have not played up to our standard, really, all year long.”

Left tackle Marvel Smith returned after missing a game with an ankle injury, but was unable to push off properly and was replaced by rookie Trai Essex, who played in his second NFL game. Cowher doesn’t know whether Smith can play against the Bengals.

– Roethlisberger “tweaked” an ankle after returning from a three-week layoff following knee surgery, but Cowher didn’t say what his status will be for Sunday. The first injury report of the week will be issued Wednesday.

-Running back Willie Parker (12 carries, 43 yards) will start again, but Cowher hasn’t decided whether he will again dress both Jerome Bettis (6 carries, 9 yards) and Duce Staley (2 carries, 6 yards) as backups.

-The Steelers’ offense should begin to stabilize now that Roethlisberger is back after Charlie Batch (two games) and Tommy Maddox (one game) started during his absence. Roethlisberger had missed four of the previous six games with injuries to both knees.

“The quarterback position has been a little bit of a merry-go-round, we’ve had Charlie in there, Tommy in there we’ve had Ben in there … and, consequently, our passing game has suffered. There hasn’t been that rhythm and being in sync,” Cowher said.

AP-ES-11-29-05 1805EST

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