There must have been a blemish on the Steelers’ collective karma, gained somewhere over the years of grueling, all-means-are-good battles with 31 other teams for that shiny trophy, and it has now been polished squeaky-clean. Or maybe it is the fact that the Steelers have more of those trophies than anyone else in the league and they were forced to succumb to the big old Parity. Or there is a grand conspiracy in place against the Steelers and Goodell’s minions are making sure not to let Pittsburgh play in January. Or maybe the Steelers have simply run out of their luck.
Any explanation is good enough.
Either way, of the myriad of possibilities of how and when the Steelers may have been knocked out of the postseason contention over the past few weeks of the season, the fate has chosen by far the most wicked, cruel and sadistic one. With gazillion pieces of the puzzle that needed to fall squarely into their places (over most of which the Steelers had no control), the team came within four seconds and within a routine field goal of the playoff on the final day of the season before being eliminated. The NFL kept us on the edges of our seats well into the afternoon (for some of us in Europe – well into Monday) before sending all of us to an agonizing night of re-running the last-second field goal in our minds and wondering about what could have been.
That is plain cruel. Unreal. Hollywood style. You know, like those movies that seem so powerful and not just because the protagonist dies and there is no happy end.
Some will say that the Steelers finished 8-8, just like last season, which means that they are no better, and should be happy with simply having to play a meaningful game in Week 17. This is, unquestionably, true. But unlike in 2012, when the Steelers stumbled to the finish line, having lost 5 out of their last 7, this year the Steelers surged, going 6-2 in the second half of the season and promising to be a tough match-up for anyone. And, while being mindful of the consequences of the 0-4 and 2-6 start of the season that, please forgive me the cliché, we all know consists of 16 games, the Steelers seemed to have another deep postseason run in them. Not to be.
These close misses tend to provoke the "what-if" thinking and wondering, when your mind picks individual plays that could have gone your way but didn’t. And, boy, were there many this year! And not only plays that Steelers did not make or the opponents did – there were also bad bounces and, worst of all, bad officiating calls.
Without digging deep, there was the Baltimore helmet fiasco, the Green Bay blocked field goal error and, apparently, a couple of crucial officiating gaffes yesterday at San Diego, each of which would have likely given the Steelers a playoff-berth. The former two have been discussed in depth. And now, reportedly, the Chargers should have been flagged for illegal formation on the missed FG try giving Succop another shot, and then, in overtime, the refs inexplicably failed to review the fake punt play where the runner seemed to have fumbled the ball that was returned by the Chiefs for the touchdown in overtime.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not falling into the Holmgren-esque "we had to play against the opponents AND the referees" mantra. It is just that for the game participants who really should be invisible, the refs spent way too much time in the headlines.
Then there were other things that could have gone the other way. There were failed comebacks against Minnesota and Baltimore that ended within six and two yards of the tying score respectively. There was the game in Oakland where the usually reliable Shaun Suisham apparently got jet-lagged and missed two gimmie field goals in what ultimately was a three-point game. Finally, there was the Dolphins game that would have given the Steelers another December miracle had Antonio Brown not stepped an inch out of bounds on a final, five-lateral return play where he had the last defender beat and didn’t even have to go that wide to get past him.
In a way, the ending in San Diego was fitting. So painfully close, but just not enough.
It is true that, as Tomlin said, the Steelers laid their own bed by forgetting to show up in September and at Foxboro. But paraphrasing one of the newest Tomlinisms - boy, did the Steelers lay in that bed pretty. It is never easy to turn 2-6 into 8-8, and it takes a lot of will, determination and teamwork to get there.
Despite the sharp pain of being oh-so-close that the Steeler Nation is going through now, and despite the back-to-back non-winning , non-playoff season, it would be fair and fitting to say a big thanks to the Steelers for this ride.
This was a run by a team that was restrained by salary cap and age, a team in transition. I bet about 30 other teams would take an 8-8, and a playoff-contending season as their transition year.
This was a run by a team that got decimated by injuries, losing key starters as early as eight plays into the season. Has any other team lost three veteran starters after the first game? And the now-usual offensive line injury bug? Not much has been said about the Standard this year, but we’ve seen a lot of backups and rookies thrust into the mix of things on the field – and many of them held their own and showed a lot of promise.
This team will have a different outlook in 2014. There will be a bunch of regulars that will not be around. Iconic figures like Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Ryan Clark and maybe even Troy Polamalu may have played their final game in Black and Gold. But the core of the team is there, and there is a lot to look forward to next season.
So, thank you, the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers, for this season – season full of ups and downs, season highlighted with growing glimmer of hope that could have turned into a roaring fire, but ultimately broke our hearts. I don’t know about everybody else, but I will be looking forward to the next season.