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Starkey: Steelers should still be playing

| Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, 9:39 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Steelers and Broncos players scramble for a loose ball after Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbles during an AFC divisional playoff game Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Denver.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reacts after being sacked the next series after the Broncos scored the winning touchdown during their AFC divisional playoff game Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Denver.

The Steelers blew a precious opportunity Sunday in Denver. Let's acknowledge that much.

Yes, their effort was excellent. Yes, they were short-handed. But that wasn't the '85 Bears they were playing. The Steelers led for most of the day. The game was theirs.

They should have won.

I'm not buying what seems to be the prevailing storyline in these parts. Namely, that the little-engine-that-could went to Denver to play the big, bad, healthy Broncos and tried their best and that's OK and what did you expect, anyway?

How is it OK to lose to a linguine-armed quarterback when your defense is fully intact and has a late lead?

How is it OK to step into the biggest game of the year and fall flat on your face on special teams (besides The Boz, of course), drop passes, miss tackles, fail to finish either half on defense, commit ill-timed penalties (none more than Marcus Gilbert's facemask), miscommunicate in the secondary on a crucial third-and-long and make the game's only turnover at a very bad time?

Injuries or no injuries, the Steelers beat the Steelers — and thus lost a legitimate shot to emerge from as weak an AFC field as I can remember.

I'm with defensive end Cam Heyward, who nodded in the affirmative when I asked if a huge chance had been squandered.

I don't get the feeling Cam does participation trophies.

“I don't think we were as defiant as we needed to be in all three categories (offense, defense, special teams),” he said. “We have to continue to grow and understand the magnitude of those (playoff) moments. You have to be willing to adapt and recover and handle the momentum swings.”

It was still a nice season under the circumstances, but it's not like the Steelers were the only team that fought major adversity. Two others will play in the AFC title game.

The Broncos managed to secure the No. 1 seed — and therefore stay at home, where they are 16-5 in the postseason — even though Peyton Manning suddenly couldn't play anymore. Then he got injured. So did Denver's top two left tackles.

The Patriots led the league in man-games lost to injury. Major contributors (Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Jamie Collins, etc). were lost for large chunks of time. Yet the Patriots secured the No. 2 seed.

The Steelers' injury situation has to be viewed in relation to the competition. They won a playoff game against a team that was without its MVP-candidate quarterback (Andy Dalton) and lost arguably its best defensive player (Reggie Nelson) for half the game. That shouldn't diminish the magnitude of the Steelers' victory, just as going to Denver without Antonio Brown and others shouldn't diminish the magnitude of their loss.

The Steelers had the better player at the most important position on the field (quarterback, where Ben Roethlisberger looked fine), a healthy defense, a good offensive line and enough playmakers to win.

You could whittle the loss to Fitzgerald Toussaint's fumble, but that would be awfully small-minded. Jordan Berry did Toussaint one better: He gave the Broncos the ball in field-goal range via a 27-yard punt. At least Denver had to work for points after Touissant's fumble.

Later came a play every bit as big as Touissant's gaffe: a 3rd-and-12 that ol' Linguine Arm managed to convert because the Steelers made a mistake. The first questionable move was to call a delayed blitz featuring Ross Cockrell. It looked as bad as the Mike Mitchell blitz in the fourth quarter against Oakland.

But the real problem, cornerback Brandon Boykin confirmed Monday, was a communication issue between himself and safety Will Allen. Boykin was looking at Allen when the ball was snapped, and before he knew it, the great Bennie Fowler was cutting inside him to make a play. Allen missed the tackle to account for 10 more yards.

Later in the drive, James Harrison (otherwise a beast) jumped offsides, and Manning outsmarted the Steelers by lining up quickly to set up C.J. Anderson's touchdown run.

Big Ben still got the ball with plenty of time and perhaps the last shot. Nothing came of it.

So credit the Broncos, I suppose. They found a way. But they had all kinds of help.

The Steelers blew a precious opportunity.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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