When it was announced late in the week that Browns' starting quarterback Brandon Weeden and back-up Colt McCoy were both ruled out for the Week 17 game on Sunday, and Thaddeus Lewis would be making his first pro start against Pittsburgh, the first thing that popped into my head was "Really?"
Throw in an inactive Trent Richardson, who also missed the regular season finale because of an ankle injury, and for my money, it summed up the Steelers season quite succinctly.
After a sluggish start on both sides of the football, Pittsburgh took care of business in a 24-10 victory over the Browns at Heinz Field to end the season at a very disappointing 8-8.
It wasn't a dominating performance, but it was the kind of business-like showing against a depleted and inferior opponent we've come to expect from the Steelers in recent years, and for good reason.
Had Pittsburgh been able to take care of business in a similar fashion against teams like the Titans and Raiders earlier in the year, Sunday's showing would have been for a spot in the playoffs and not just pride.
It just seemed like the Steelers were a half a step off all season.
Earlier in the year, Pittsburgh's defense was the subject of much scrutiny after failing to hold fourth quarter leads in three losses in the first five games.
However, Dick Lebeau's unit began to turn things around, even without an injured Troy Polamalu who would miss seven straight games with a torn calf muscle, and the team won four games in a row.
As bad luck would have it, that fourth victory--an overtime win over the Chiefs that improved Pittsburgh to 6-3--came with a heavy price when Ben Roethlisberger suffered a sprained SC joint in his right shoulder and was forced to miss three weeks.
The injury came at a time when the offense looked as if it was starting to take shape under first year coordinator Todd Haley. Through the first eight games, Roethlisberger was having an MVP-like season with 16 touchdown passes to only four interceptions and a 101.1 passer rating.
Unfortunately, without Roethlisberger under center as well as receiver Antonio Brown, who missed several weeks late in the year with a high ankle sprain, the Steelers offense struggled mightily in losses to Baltimore and Cleveland, scoring a total of 24 points and turning the football over 11 times--including eight in the 20-14 loss to the Browns in Week 12.
In Week 13, Pittsburgh got a signature win against the Ravens thanks to an epic fourth quarter comeback led by third-string quarterback Charlie Batch that culminated in a Shaun Suisham game-winning 42 yard field goal as time expired.
Things looked to be on the upswing--Polamalu returned to the line-up, and James Harrison made the play of the day when he stripped Joe Flacco of the football in the fourth quarter to set up the tying touchdown--but just like the victory over Kansas City, the Steelers paid a heavy price when cornerback Ike Taylor was lost with a fractured ankle.
This proved to be costly as the secondary performed below the line in a surprising home loss to the then 4-8 Chargers on a day when Roethlisberger returned for what everyone thought would be a December playoff push.
There would be no playoff push thanks in large part to a struggling Roethlisberger, who threw two very costly interceptions in losses to the Cowboys and Bengals that ultimately knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoff race.
The Steelers won on Sunday behind an efficient if unspectacular offense, led by Roethlisberger's three short touchdown passes. He wasn't his sharpest, but he played good, solid December football, the kind we're used to seeing heading into the playoffs.
Running back Jonathan Dwyer rushed for 53 yards on 11 carries, and looked like the player who rushed for over 100 yards in back-to-back games earlier in the season.
The efficient offense was helped along by a defense that suddenly became opportunistic in recent weeks. After recording only 13 takeaways during the first 14 games, Pittsburgh's defense created seven turnovers in the last two weeks--including four on Sunday--to finish with 20 for the season.
Led by Polamalu, Cortez Allen and Lawrence Timmons, the defense was as fierce and dominant as any in the NFL in Weeks 16 and 17 and certainly looked like a unit ready for a playoff push.
However, there will be no playoffs for the 2012 Steelers because their defense wasn't very opportunistic and fierce earlier in the year.
There will be no postseason for Pittsburgh because the offense spent the majority of the season performing at an inefficient level.
There will be no playoffs in 2012 because of ill-timed injuries and costly mistakes at key moments.
The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't parlay the absences of Weeden and Richardson into a memorable playoff clinching victory in the regular season finale on Sunday because, simply put, they spent the majority of the year out of sync.