Kevin Gorman: From the start, the Steelers blew it
A season that started with Super Bowl aspirations, one filled with incredible comebacks and last-minute victories, ended with a touchdown in the final second.
Yet, there was no celebration from JuJu Smith-Schuster, the rookie receiver who had turned touchdowns into viral video sensations.
It was a hollow moment Sunday at Heinz Field, the solemn silence that followed the devastating defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC divisional playoff.
"Of course, because you know it's not enough," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose 4-yarder to Smith-Schuster was his fifth touchdown pass of a 469-yard performance.
"We wanted an opportunity to go win the game. That's what we all crave and want. That opportunity just didn't happen."
Instead, we were left to contemplate this final score: Jaguars 45, Steelers 42.
A season dedicated to Dan Rooney, their late chairman, and Ryan Shazier, their inside linebacker who suffered a spine injury, ended short of a rematch with the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, let alone a seventh Lombardi.
That was hard to swallow for the Steelers. Inside their locker room was pure devastation from a team with three All-Pros and six Pro Bowl picks, to many the NFL's most talented roster.
Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams wasn't about to sugarcoat it, either. He said there was "definitely a sense" the Steelers underachieved.
"Whenever you are a Pittsburgh Steeler and you don't win the Super Bowl," Williams said, "you underachieve."
The standard is the standard, after all, to borrow Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's favorite phrase.
What we would like to borrow is Tomlin's playbook, to gain some understanding of the calls that cost the Steelers this game.
Tomlin was unapologetic about his decision-making, crediting the effort but blaming "detail execution" while refusing to analyze the loss "in a big-picture fashion."
So, let's fashion this in a small picture: From the start, the Steelers blew it.
Debate all you want the decisions to defer, to run a toss right to Le'Veon Bell on fourth-and-1 late in the first quarter or throw a pass to Smith-Schuster on fourth-and-1 early in the fourth, to attempt an onsides kick after cutting a two-touchdown deficit to seven points with 2 minutes, 18 seconds remaining.
They all backfired and blew up on the Steelers in a big way.
Instead of testing a Jacksonville defense that Roethlisberger called "one of the best I've ever played against," the Steelers trusted a defense that struggled to stop the run and had a penchant for allowing big pass plays.
They bet on beating Blake Bortles, who ran for 1 more yard than he threw against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC wild card. Bortles picked them apart with play-action passes and bootlegs, then handed it to bruising back Leonard Fournette for a 1-yard touchdown run and 7-0 lead.
On fourth-and-1, no less.
That was monumental because Jacksonville knew it could control the game if it had an early lead. The Steelers relied on Le'Veon Bell in the playoffs last year, and he broke their postseason single-game rushing record in back-to-back games. But it's hard to run when you're trailing, and Roethlisberger's interception at the Steelers' 18 set up Fournette's next score. It was 14-0 before you could blink.
Jacksonville swarmed Bell for a 4-yard loss on the first fourth-and-1, then responded with a 75-yard scoring drive that saw Fournette convert the first of eight times on 14 third downs. The Steelers offense couldn't stay on the field, and their defense couldn't get the Jaguars off the field.
No wonder fans booed them.
What followed was a microcosm of their season, one full of distractions that players claim were magnified by the media. The Steelers came back, thanks to a pair of fourth-and-long touchdown passes, to Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown, that were things of beauty — and despite a Roethlisberger fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
In hindsight, you can say the fourth-down calls offset one another, as did the decision to defer when the Steelers opened the second half with a 77-yard scoring drive on another picture-perfect pass, this time to Bell. The Steelers kept scoring until the final whistle, but it was too late.
Just because the Steelers bailed out Tomlin doesn't absolve the bad calls.
Jacksonville handed the Steelers their most lopsided loss of the season, loading up the line and daring them to throw. Roethlisberger passed 55 times for 312 yards in that 30-9 loss Oct. 8. He exceeded those totals by throwing it 58 times for 469 yards. Never mind the five times previous times Roethlisberger threw for 300 yards or more in the playoffs ended in defeat.
The way the Steelers' season ended was anything but super, except for one thing.
"It's super disappointing," Williams said. "I feel like we failed everybody. We failed the City of Pittsburgh. I failed Ryan. That's my best friend. I feel like I failed my best friend and Mr. Rooney. We had a lot of expectations this season. We had a lot of hype, a lot of buzz generated. To come out here in the second round, at home, in front of Heinz and in front of everybody we care about and everybody that loves us and fail, that feels like …"
Well, you know the feeling.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.