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For fans, a bleak winter outlook

| Monday, Dec. 24, 2012, 7:47 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is hit by the Bengals' Geno Atkins (left) and Carlos Dunlap on a fourth-quarter run Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, at Heinz Field. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

No playoffs for the Steelers. No season, at this point, for the Penguins. Regardless of the forecast, winter just got colder and bleaker for the Pittsburgh sports fan.

“Right now it's a very lackluster,” Chris McElheney said in the fading light outside Heinz Field late Sunday afternoon after the Steelers' playoffs hopes faded to black in their last-minute, 13-10 loss to Cincinnati. “It's gonna be a long winter because we have no football to look forward to, nor hockey.”

One game remains against Cleveland on Sunday also at Heinz Field. But after that, the NFL postseason begins without the Steelers. Normally, regardless of when the end comes, fans turn their full attention to the Penguins, but an end to the lockout that so far has canceled games through Jan. 14 appears nowhere in sight.

“We were looking for a better outcome this evening,” said McElheney, 42, of Robinson. “However, that didn't happen, so next week's pretty much a noneventful game. Typically, hockey's getting geared up. We had that to look forward to.”

But not now and maybe not for the foreseeable future. Asked what will replace watching the Penguins, McElheney said, “Go skiing.”

At least when NHL owners locked out the players for the entire 2004-05 season, the '04 Steelers went 15-1 with rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and got to play deep into January after a first-round bye, beating the Jets and losing to the Patriots in the playoffs.

Unless the NHL figures things out and the players return to the ice, the local major professional sports landscape will remain barren until the Pirates report for spring training in February. But Opening Day at PNC Park is still more than three months away.

Fans filed out of Heinz Field angry, disappointed and grumbling after witnessing a litany of mistakes against a Bengals team that had little recent success against the Steelers. But this has been a less-than-stellar season for the beat-up Steelers, who started 6-3 before losing five of six.

This follows the Pirates' late-season collapse, which guaranteed a 20th straight losing season. Fans seem less than enthused about last week's Hot Stove League activity that landed for $14 million a starting pitcher who is 32-45 with a 4.85 ERA the past four years and saw their two-time All-Star closer the team agreed to trade for four prospects of uncertain big league ability.

“The Pirates kind of fizzled out, and so did the (darn) Steelers,” said Casey McCartney of Clearfield, accompanied by her husband, Jeff, who turns 29 on Christmas.

Absent the Penguins, she said, “Now what have we got to look forward to?”

“Valentine's Day,” Jeff instantly responded, an answer sure to score points but one that might not go over well with other fans.

After seeing the Steelers lose for a third straight time at home, Byron Moore of Moon said he had better luck with the Pirates, who won most of the dozen or so games he saw at PNC Park. Moore said he attends “a lot of Penguins games.” Or used to. “But we don't have the Penguins right now.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bcohn@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.

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