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The Super Bowl champion Steelers are losing their confidence as fast as they're losing leads and losing games. The Oakland Raiders? Suddenly, they're winning like they did in the old days, with remarkable comebacks and surprise finishes.
Louis Murphy caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bruce Gradkowski with nine seconds remaining, his second score in the final 6 minutes, and the Raiders scored three late touchdowns to stun Pittsburgh 27-24 on Sunday and deal the Steelers their fourth consecutive loss.
The Steelers (6-6), in danger of missing the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl for a second time in four seasons, went ahead 24-20 on Ben Roethlisberger's 11-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward with 1:56 remaining, only to have the Raiders (4-8) rally and win it.
For the two-touchdown underdog Raiders, it was a comeback win even better than their 20-17 upset over Cincinnati two weeks before. Then, Murphy caught a 29-yard touchdown pass and Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 33-yard field goal in the final 33 seconds.
Overmatched against his hometown Steelers last season, Gradkowski became the first Raiders quarterback to throw three touchdowns in a fourth quarter since Ken Stabler during a 42-35 win over New Orleans on Dec. 3, 1979, when Oakland trailed 35-14.
Who does Gradkowski think he is, one-time Raiders comeback king George Blanda? Until Sunday, the Raiders had thrown only five touchdown passes all season.
Gradkowski, who completed only two passes and had a 1.0 passer rating during a 31-0 loss in Pittsburgh with Cleveland last December, finished 20 of 33 for 308 yards with a passer rating of 121.8.
"Our receivers coach (Sanjay Lal) gave us a message, and he brought up the Miracle on Ice, Buster Douglas knocking out (Mike) Tyson, and things that were just unbelievable but the people that did it believed they could," wide receiver Todd Watkins said.
Pittsburgh, 6-2 at midseason, has lost to two of the NFL's worst teams in the last three weeks, the Chiefs (3-9) and the Raiders, to fall three games behind Cincinnati (9-3) in the AFC North.
"I can't even describe how frustrating it is right now to be 6-6," linebacker James Farrior said. "We thought we'd be doing a lot better at this point. But we are what our record says we are."
It was the fifth time in six losses the Steelers couldn't hold a lead in the fourth quarter. They led 10-6, 17-13 and 24-20.
"As a defense, you want to be dominant," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "The way to be dominating is when your team needs you to finish."
After three quarters with little scoring, long stretches of inactivity and an unusually quiet crowd, the fourth quarter became a back-and-forth duel between revived offenses, with the lead changing five times in the final 8½ minutes.
"We'd score, they'd score, we'd score," Oakland's Jon Condo said.
It all started when Gradkowski connected with Chaz Schilens on a 17-yard scoring pass with 8:21 remaining to give Oakland its first lead at 13-10.
The Raiders, held to 49 points in their first five road games and next to last in the NFL in offense, fell behind 17-13 on Rashard Mendenhall's 3-yard TD run one play after Roethlisberger's 57-yard hookup with Santonio Holmes. Holmes earlier put Pittsburgh up 10-3 with a 34-yard scoring catch.
Oakland answered again when Murphy got behind Ike Taylor on a 75-yard touchdown pass that made it 20-17 with 5:28 to go, but it wasn't nearly over.
Pittsburgh drove 80 yards in seven plays for Ward's touchdown, but left enough time on the clock -- almost three minutes -- for Oakland to win it with the kind of drive it's rarely mounted all season, much less three times in a quarter.
Gradkowski found Murphy for 19 yards to the Steelers 40 and 17 yards to the 23, and a late-hit penalty on backup safety Ryan Mundy gave Oakland a first down at the 11. Murphy then got free behind Mundy -- playing only because Troy Polamalu (left knee) missed a third consecutive game -- for the game-winner.
"That was so exciting, I can't even put into words how I feel," said Gradkowski, whose first two starts in Pittsburgh in 2006 and 2008 yielded three points, five interceptions and zero wins.
Playing 17 days shy of the 37th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, the Steelers had one more chance. Roethlisberger threw into the end zone from the 50 on the final play, but Hiram Eugene knocked down a pass intended for Limas Sweed.
No miracle finish against Oakland this time.
"We played poorly at a critical time, so you lose when you do that," coach Mike Tomlin said.