Steelers finish on high note with victory, but miss on AFC playoffs
The Steelers are playing so well right now, they're a team nobody wants to be playing next weekend.
Unfortunately for them, that's who they're playing: Nobody.
The Steelers' improbable run to the playoffs — computer-estimated at only 1 percent three weeks ago — was nearly realized Sunday as they beat the Browns, 20-7, the Ravens lost to the Bengals and Dolphins were stunning upset losers to the Jets.
But with a chance to seal the Steelers' trip to the postseason, Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop missed a 41-yard attempt in the closing seconds of regulation, and the Chargers (9-7) went on to win, 27-24, in overtime in San Diego to claim the AFC's second wild-card spot.
The Chargers, who trailed 24-14 in the fourth quarter before rallying, will play in Cincinnati next weekend. The Steelers will go home — again, missing the playoffs in successive seasons for the first time since 1998-2000.
The Steelers, 5-8 only three weeks ago, beat the Bengals, Packers and Browns to end the season. But, it turned out, they couldn't beat near-impossible odds.
“We wanted it so bad,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “To start off and go 0-4 and then turn it around and make the playoffs, it would have been amazing. If we got in the playoffs, who knows what might have happened? Hey, miracles happen.”
Only this one didn't.
On Twitter, several Steelers players expressed outrage when Succop missed; right tackle Marcus Gilbert questioned if he missed it intentionally. Injured linebacker Larry Foote tweeted, “My heart is broke.”
He wasn't alone in the Steelers' locker room. What made it hurt even worse is that so many improbable things needed to play out over two weeks — they had to win twice, and six other games had to go their way — and they nearly did. The Steelers would have been only the second team to make the playoffs after starting 0-4.
“It seemed like the scenario playing out was a long way away, it was a long shot, but we won and everyone we needed to win or lose, it ended up occurring,” Sanders said. “I said, 'Wow, we've got a shot.'”
“We got hot at the right time,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “You don't want an 8-8 team that just got to 8-8 coming to your house.”
Now that they won't be going to Cincinnati to play a Bengals team they beat, 30-20, three weeks ago, Heyward said, “I'll be scratching my head thinking about it.”
A team that was eminently forgettable during a winless September put together a memorable December, the kind of push a team wants to make going into January. The trouble was, the Steelers never figured out how to win until it was October.
“You hate to look back — Oakland, Tennessee, Miami, Minnesota, a lot of games you look back if we'd got hot a little earlier, started a little faster,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “If we'd have started the game fast in a couple of those games, right now who knows where we'd be?”
How about the playoffs?
“I wanted it bad. I wanted it bad for all the guys who put in the time and the work,” Heyward said. “It would be an injustice to not have us in the playoffs because I just know how bad these guys want it.”
“We could have easily gone in the tank. A lot of people forgot about us, a lot of people didn't care about us, but the team stuck together and finished,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “It's crazy. But we knew we had to win this game to even have a chance.”
They took care of that in a hurry. The Steelers drove 62 yards on their opening possession for a touchdown, Ben Roethlisberger's 9-yard throw to Jerricho Cotchery, who became only the ninth receiver in team history to make 10 touchdown catches in a season.
Roethlisberger went 19 of 31 for 179 yards with the TD and two interceptions to finish 375 of 584 for 4,261 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in one of the best statistical seasons of his career.
“I'm really proud of what has happened,” Roethlisberger said. “We started 0-4 and things aren't looking so good, and we have one of the worst records in football. Guys continue to fight and never quit.”
Cleveland (4-12), on the other hand, lost 10 of its final 11.
The Browns' best chance to make it a competitive game came when they drove to the 25 following Cotchery's touchdown, only to have Keisel strip the ball from Jason Campbell. Chris Carter, starting at outside linebacker because both Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley were out, recovered.
The Steelers pushed it to 14-0 in the second quarter on Le'Veon Bell's 5-yard spin-and-run to the end zone. Bell ran for 90 yards on 20 carries and his 1,259 scrimmage yards topped Franco Harris' 1,235 yards in 1972 for the team rookie record.
Bell's season was much like the Steelers'; once he got going, he was difficult to stop, as he finished with 860 yards rushing in 13 games and 214 in his final two.
“It's an honor to even be in the same category,” Bell said. “Franco Harris is one of the greatest runners to ever come through here.”
Antonio Brown's nine catches for 87 yards left him two short of Hines Ward's team record of 112 in 2002, but he became the first receiver in NFL history with at least five catches and 50 yards in every game during a 16-game season. His 93.7 yards per game average also broke Buddy Dial's team record of 92.5 that stood for 50 years.
Afterward, he was more impressed with what the Steelers did by mounting a pair of three-game winning streaks in the second half of the season.
“I think we're a team on the rise,” Brown said. “It would be amazing if we sneak in.”
But the Steelers' season ended a little short of amazing.
Shaun Suisham converted field goals of 30 and 32 yards to finish the most accurate season by a Steelers kicker; he went 30 of 32 (93.8 percent) to surpass Gary Anderson's 28 of 30 (93.3 percent) in 1993. Both of his misses were in the same game, against Oakland.
But, in the end, the Steelers went 8-8, just as they did last season. It's a much different 8-8 because that 2012 team faded down the stretch and lost five of seven.
However, general manager Kevin Colbert said at the time they had to make changes because, “If we don't change 8-8 … we'd be silly to expect a better result.”
They made changes, and got the same result. They're still 8-8, and it still wasn't quite good enough. If only by a few inches.