It's the kind of feeling you have following the conclusion of a promising season that ends prematurely in the playoffs--at least you think so, if you're a fan. That numbness of disbelief, where you almost want to pinch yourself because you must be dreaming, right?
As a Steelers fan, it's the kind of feeling I've had countless times over the many years that I've followed the team--including recent ones that involved losses in the playoffs and even the Super Bowl.
It's the kind of feeling that comes with the territory if you decide to invest your emotions in something that you have absolutely no control over at all. But while the hurt and shock of a sad ending is something fans must deal with from time-to-time, there are those seasons where you just know you're not going to have to worry about a depressing finish.
The 2013 Steelers season was that for me from the kickoff of the first game against Tennessee on September 8, to the final whistle Sunday afternoon after a 20-7 victory over the Browns.
The 2013 campaign was one where I observed things with more of an objective eye. And it wasn't because I'm a blogger or an expert (that's surely not the case), it was because, well, when you watch enough sports and you follow a team for as long as I've followed the Steelers (34 seasons and counting), you just know when that team has the goods and when it does not.
Before the season started, I pegged Pittsburgh as a team that would win anywhere from six-to-eight games, and sure enough, I was pretty spot-on with that thought-process after a second-straight .500 record.
It was a different 8-8 record this time around, because unlike the 2012 Steelers who collapsed down the stretch after a 6-3 start, they had to rebound from an 0-4 September and a 2-6 first half in-order to achieve the mark.
Still though, I looked at the season with an emotional detachment all the way through. I'm sure had the Steelers found a way to win an extra game here and there, I may have jumped on the emotional bandwagon and rode it all the way through until the end. However, there was never really that moment where you felt like they were about to do something special.
And that was especially the case following the incomprehensible loss to the Dolphins in a game-long snow-storm at Heinz Field on December 8 that dropped Pittsburgh to 5-8.
Even though many fans refused to give up hope, I hadn't really had any all season, so for me, it was just a matter of the math eventually doing the Steelers in.
But instead of the Steelers officially being eliminated in Week 15 or 16, there they were, still alive for the playoffs as they took on Cleveland in the regular season finale, Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
Still, they had no chance at the playoffs, right? I mean, if they weren't done in by Miami, the Ravens, a team that always seems to sneak into the playoffs under this kind of scenario, would surely find a way to take care of business in Cincinnati.
As it turned out, things fell the Steelers way in the early games after they defeated Cleveland, and the Dolphins and Ravens actually lost their games. But surely, the Chargers would take care of business against a Kansas City squad that was resting most of its key starters, right?
Therefore, even after everything went Pittsburgh's way in the early games on Sunday, I was still trying to keep my emotions in check as the 4:25 game kicked off between San Diego and Kansas City on the Left Coast.
But it didn't take long before a little hope began to trickle into my soul thanks to a text from my brother at 4:35: "7-0 k.c."
Moments later, came another text from my brother: "14-7 chiefs baby!"
Even though I decided not to watch that game, I started to get nervous and, more importantly, much more hopeful that an actual miracle even greater than what took place in 1989, when four teams needed to lose on the final weekend so the Steelers could make the playoffs, was unfolding.
After I received a third text from my brother at 6:15 that informed me the Chiefs were up 24-14 in the second half, I was finally emotionally invested in the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers, and it only took me two-plus hours after their final regular season game to join the party.
What once seemed like the impossible dream had suddenly become so attainable, I could almost taste it.
The Steelers were about to clinch perhaps the most improbable playoff berth in franchise history, and who would their opponent be in the wildcard round? That's right, Cincinnati.
Seriously, wouldn't you have given Pittsburgh more than a puncher's chance of defeating the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium next weekend? A victory there would have meant a trip to Denver and, well, that might not have been pretty, but just to squeeze two playoff weekends out of this season would have been simply remarkable, considering how things began.
Heck, even a 42-0 pasting at the hands of Cincinnati would have been better than not making the playoffs at all.
Some out there would have scoffed at a playoff spot because, you know, it's Pittsburgh. Post Gazette columnist Gene Collier joked recently that Steelers fans only see things two ways: Super Bowl and no Super Bowl. Obviously, at 8-8 heading into the playoffs, Pittsburgh wouldn't have a great shot of making the Super Bowl, and there are many fans out there who feel as if the playoffs are a waste of time unless a Lombardi trophy is a realistic goal.
However, in my humble opinion, there is simply nothing like an NFL playoff game, both in the week-long lead-up to the event and the three hours of sheer torture during it. There's just something festive about NFL playoffs. Maybe it's the time of year. Maybe it's the weather. I don't know.
I do know that, in the 11th hour of the 2013 NFL season, I had finally started to dream about the Steelers being in them. It was going to be a great week. I was going to write many articles about Pittsburgh, the playoffs and how we Steelers fans know how to do it right when our team is fighting for something this time of year.
But almost as quickly as I finally bought into the 2013 Steelers, I had my guts ripped out thanks to Ryan Succop, the Chiefs actual starting field goal kicker, missing a 41 yard attempt in the final seconds of regulation that would have eliminated San Diego and secured all the glory I had envisioned.
It was OK, though, because just a few minutes into overtime, a Kansas City defender appeared to score a touchdown after he stripped Eric Weddle of the football on a fake punt, and I jumped up and screamed, "We're going to the playoffs!" So for the first time in the 2013 Steelers season, I decided to cut loose and really allow my emotions to run wild about my favorite team, and that team wasn't even playing.
Unfortunately, the officials said Weddle's forward progress was stopped before the Chiefs player stripped the football away from him, thus nullifying the touchdown, and, of course, ripping out what was left of my insides after Succop's miss.
So, instead of being objective about the 2013 Steelers and how they had nobody to blame but themselves for their fate, there I was at about 8 p.m. on Sunday evening, sitting in my dark living room, hating Ryan Succop, complaining about the ineptitude of NFL officials (in addition to the Weddle play, it turns out Succop should have been given another field goal try because San Diego was lined up illegally) and feeling the kind of pain and sorrow normally reserved for Super Bowl losses.
Again, to repeat what I touched on in last week's article, a playoff berth wouldn't have made all the Steelers problems magically go away. And while the 6-2 second half finish sure was nice, a cynic might point to the fact that of Pittsburgh's 13 opponents (counting AFC North foes, once), only three of them made the playoffs, so maybe the team achieved its .500 record under false pretenses.
However, the playoffs sure would have given us something to talk about besides the draft and free agency (I'm so not ready to talk about that stuff yet and I could care less where Pittsburgh is drafting).
The 2013 Steelers season wasn't supposed to feel this painful.
What's that famous Ron Burgundy quote about San Diego?
Did he say anything about Ryan Succop?
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