JACOB BUTTERFIELD admits Middlesbrough are being dragged into a relegation battle, but the midfielder remains confident the Teessiders will haul themselves out of trouble long before the end of the season.
Saturday's 1-0 home defeat to Brighton leaves Boro just three places above the Championship relegation zone, with their current position of 19th representing their joint-lowest league placing of the season.
A campaign that began with considerable promise is in danger of falling apart, and rather than targeting the play-off places, Aitor Karanka's side are heading into the festive programme looking over their shoulders at the lower reaches of the table.
With two of their next three matches pitting them against teams in the top five, it is not inconceivable that Boro could kick off 2014 in a relegation position, although Butterfield continues to maintain that the squad is much too good to be worrying about the drop.
When asked whether Boro were now embroiled in a relegation battle, the former Norwich midfielder said: “I suppose if you look at the league table, you would say that. But I think we're far too good for that, to be honest.
“I think we're capable of getting some good results, and if we can pick one or two up, then things will look a lot brighter for us. We all know what this league is like.
“I don't think any of us are looking down that route (relegation) at the minute, but when we look to where this club should be, in the play-offs for example, then when we're dropping as many points as we are, it's going to get a lot harder.
“Everyone's just disappointed. I can't remember the last time we lost a game where we felt as though the opposition team deserved to beat us. We seem to be giving the points away, and that's disappointing because we're working hard and doing a lot of things right.
“We're more than capable of turning things around, and it's in our hands. We just need to pick ourselves up and start learning from our mistakes now.”
Those mistakes are proving extremely costly, with Saturday's game the third in a row in which Boro have conceded a crucial goal in the final five minutes.
Matthew Upson's 86th-minute header condemned the Teessiders to their eighth defeat of the season, and while they had arguably been the better side for the majority of the second half, that counted for nothing when they failed to prevent the former England international meeting Craig Conway's corner on the edge of the six-yard box.
Seven days earlier, Boro had conceded a 90th-minute goal to Kyle Bartley in a 2-2 draw at Birmingham, and three days before that, Derby's Connor Sammon scored in stoppage time to earn his side a 2-1 win.
“This has happened too many times this season now,” said Butterfield. “Silly mistakes have been costing us too many points, and everyone is frustrated. The fans must be frustrated, and the players and staff certainly are too.
“When you concede as late as we have been doing, it's very hard to come back. And when it keeps happening as often as it has in recent weeks, it needs to be addressed.
“We have to put this right. I don't think we've been playing too badly, and in spells, we've been quite good. I think it's small margins, but they're letting us down at the minute and it's not good enough. It's not helping us to get to where we want to be.”
Things are unlikely to get any easier on Saturday as Boro travel to the uninviting environs of The New Den to take on a Millwall side who are unbeaten in their last seven home games.
“I suppose it's not the nicest place to play, but once you're on the pitch, you just focus on the football,” said Butterfield. “I think it's about time we start translating the performances into results.
“We need results that match the performances, and we need to be picking up points because we have to start climbing up the table now. We can't make any more excuses.”