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Steelers discover great games produce great pain

| Sunday, Jan. 12, 2003

This wasn't a football game, it was "Rocky" personified.

Those weren't the Steelers and Titans fighting desperately to advance Saturday afternoon and into Saturday night at The Coliseum, it was Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed doing battle in a confrontation so profound, it transcended what was at stake.

Would the Super Bowl really have been better than this?

The Steelers will never know.

Their dream died hard in overtime, when Titans kicker Joe Nedney was given a second chance to kick a game-winning field goal in overtime, giving Tennessee a 34-31 win.

But when their pain gives way to appreciation, the Steelers will realize they at least went down in a blaze of glory.

They don't give away rings for such things, and the Steelers will get none for an effort that included allowing 430 yards of offense, dropping a couple of critical passes, turning the ball over, and missing a tackle and then running into a kicker in OT.

They weren't perfect, and according to The Coliseum scoreboard, they weren't good enough.

But when the dejection is replaced by perspective, the Steelers will come to understand that they were at least good enough to take part in what became a spectacle the likes of which any player on either side would be fortunate indeed to participate in again at some point in his career.

"Our football team, I've never been more proud of a group of guys," coach Bill Cowher said after expressing his rage with the way the game had been legislated. "They've done everything I've asked them to do.

"I wouldn't trade them for anybody in the world."

What Cowher had mostly told his Steelers to do coming to Tennessee was play, adjust and believe. His pregame mantra, developed down the stretch in a season that reeked of disappointment and unrealized potential early but acquired a cleansing character as the Steelers battled back from double-digit deficits and battled back into the playoffs, galvanized what remains a flawed football team and allowed it to rediscover its dignity.

No one's thought too much about that in the wake of sudden death, but they will eventually.

"I can't say enough about this team and the effort they've put through and the way they battle and continue to play together," quarterback Tommy Maddox said. "But right now, it's just hard. We felt short of what we wanted to accomplish and right now that's all that matters."

That's much more than just the typical loser's lament, the standard hearts and flowers offered to ease the anguish of a season ending.

Maddox, like Cowher, understands all the Steelers went through this season, from New England to the third meeting with Cleveland, just to make it this far.

Yesterday was no different.

The Steelers had Kendrell Bell's services for all of nine snaps. They lost Plaxico Burress for a stretch late in the first half. And as the fourth quarter was winding down, their inside linebackers were none other than Mike Jones and Larry Foote, as James Farrior had joined Bell on the sideline following another in what seemed to be an endless progression of vicious collisions (somehow, Farrior made it back onto the field).

As it turned out both teams bled.

The Titans went without wide receiver Kevin Dyson at the outset, as they have been doing since late November. They lost guard Zach Piller in the first half, and Piller might be Tennessee's best offensive lineman. And the Titans even had to turn to Neil O'Donnell for a couple of crucial snaps late in the fourth quarter on a possession that began at the Tennessee 11-yard line with 2:43 left in regulation and quickly went three-and-out.

The Steelers had a chance to win it then but didn't.

What turned out to be their final possession of the season started at midfield, reached a first-and-10 at the Tennessee 40 with 2:02 left and concluded with a punt.

They never got the ball back.

Maybe next year.

As for this year, Maddox couldn't put it to bed before seeking out his teammates individually in the locker room and sharing a private word or two.

"I just told them I was proud of them," Maddox said. "I told them how much I appreciate the effort that they gave and I told them how much fun I had playing the game with them.

"Those things will far outweigh this in the long run, but right now, this is a tough one to swallow."

That about sums it up.

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