For perhaps the first time during the pandemic, Heinz Field actually felt like it had a full house in the first quarter of the Steelers' much-anticipated Wildcard playoff game against the Browns on Sunday night.
I say this because I’m guessing even if the Mustard Jar was filled to capacity, you would have heard nothing but stunned silence after Cleveland jumped out to a remarkably surreal 28-0 lead before Sunday’s contest was even 15 minutes old.
Old. Maybe that’s the problem here. Maybe that’s why the Steelers keep getting their butts handed to them in these postseason matchups. No, not everyone is old, but certain key players are, including the big guy, himself, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw four interceptions. That seems to be nothing new for him in these types of games during the latter stages of his career.
His center, Maurkice Pouncey, is getting up there, too, which may explain why snapping the football has become an adventure over the past two years or so. He started Sunday’s game by air-mailing his first shotgun snap over Roethlisberger’s head and into the end zone where the Browns pounced on it to make the score 7-0.
After that, it seemed like the Steelers mailed it in.
Oh, sure, they made an effort to get back into it, but don’t they always in these playoff games? Remember that glorious 18-16 nail-biter over the Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs following the 2016 season? That was Pittsburgh’s last postseason victory. Since then, the Steelers have done their best ‘70s Vikings and/or ‘90s Bills Super Bowl impression by getting totally blown off the field like they have no business even being a participant.
First, it was a 36-17 bullying at the hands of the Patriots in the 2016/2017 AFC title game. The following year, it was a 45-42 loss to the Jaguars in the divisional round—some would say that game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
You can certainly say that about Sunday’s 48-37 loss to the Browns.
In fact, if you remembered that Jaguars disaster from a few years earlier, you may have thought you were watching a rerun. Pittsburgh fell behind by several touchdowns, only to fight back and give you hope before bursting your bubble. Fortunately for Steelers fans, their favorite team gave up one more first-quarter touchdown than its defense allowed to Jacksonville way back in January of 2018, thus assuring them that they weren’t experiencing Deju Vu.
It was a sad turn of events at Heinz Field. Roethlisberger was seen crying on the sidelines late in the fourth quarter as the realization of the finality of a once-promising season was setting in.
Why was he crying? Was it because of what I just said? Was it because he knew deep down that it was his last game?
Maybe he simply concluded that his guys just ran out of steam. Maybe they were going on adrenaline as they started the season 11-0. Unfortunately, something sinister took hold of this football team around Halloween, and it refused to let go until it completely snuffed the life out of those Super Bowl aspirations on Sunday evening.
And the Steelers really weren’t the same even before losing their first game in early December. I don’t know what it was, but except for 20 frantic, final minutes against the Colts in Week 16 that saw Pittsburgh erase a 17-point deficit and allowed the team to claim its first division title in three seasons, the Steelers looked shot, lifeless, disinterested during the twilight of the regular season.
I can’t explain why this team keeps fading down the stretch, but 2020 was essentially a repeat of how 2018 and 2019 climaxed.
That’s not good for many people, including the head coach, his assistants, several young and old players and, of course, the big guy.
But that’s a conversation for another day, another podcast, another article.
Right now, we must congratulate the Browns. They appeared to want it more on Sunday. The Steelers appeared to want to go home.
The way both teams played, everyone got what they came for.