Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin used the phrase "moving train" to describe how things were rolling along near the end of the year and how it would be hard for injured players to hop back on board.
Speaking of that train, from one fan's perspective, when the Steelers postseason express got rolling around mid-October or so, it really was a fun ride. Unfortunately, like most great rides, it had to come to an end sooner or later. Later would have been preferable, obviously, but sooner was the reality, and it came with a 30-17 first-round exit at the hands of the Ravens on Saturday night at Heinz Field.
When your favorite football team loses in the playoffs, it's never fun, but it's probably more disappointing the earlier it occurs. In my opinion, if there's one thing more enjoyable than anticipating an NFL playoff game, it's waiting for the next one after already experiencing the thrill of a January victory. Today, players and coaches like to talk about "stacking wins," and when that happens in an NFL postseason, there's nothing more thrilling in all of professional sports.
Again, though, Steelers fans won't get to enjoy that this year, but maybe there's some solace in the fact that very few people would have predicted 11-5 and a division title for the 2014 campaign. At least I didn't expect it. While watching Pittsburgh's 31-10 dog pounding at the hands of the Browns in Week 6, there was no way I would have predicted such a thrilling end to the year. In fact, as my uncle and I sat in front of his TV and tried to remain awake through the final quarter or two, we both anticipated a less-than-savory finish to the regular season. I believe "5-11" was the prediction by both of us, as we couldn't imagine how this team that barely beat Cleveland in Week 1, got trounced by Baltimore in Week 2, lost to winless Tampa Bay in Week 4 and looked average-at-best in Jacksonville in Week 5 could possibly scrounge up more than two more victories over the final 10 weeks.
As you know, there were eight victories down-the-stretch and some of the most exciting offense we've witnessed in Pittsburgh since the 1970s. Ben Roethlisberger set a record by throwing for 12 touchdowns in back-to-back victories over the Colts and Ravens in late October and early November. And running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown were about as consistent at those respective positions as any players in team history.
I can truly say I got more enjoyment out of the Steelers 2014 season than I have since they went to Super Bowl XLV. Even the 2011 campaign, when Pittsburgh finished 12-4, that just didn't seem quite as fun. Maybe I was jaded a bit from all the then recent success, but I really didn't feel the "magic" that year.
But this year really did feel special, and that certainly was the case as that train started picking up steam near the end of November, when my friend invited me to the Saints game on November 30. The Steelers honored the Super Bowl IX team that day, and most of the legends we all know and love were on-hand for the event. My friend has seats right below the team box, and to occasionally glance up and see Mean Joe Green, John Stallworth, Rocky Bleier, Lynn Swann and Andy Russell appear and wave to the crowd, that was something else. These were players that, with the exception of Swann, I had only known through my television screen on old NFL Films shows. They were immortal, yet, there they were in the flesh, only a few short feet from me.
While the loss to New Orleans dropped the Steelers to 7-5 and put them firmly on the playoff bubble, it would be the last defeat of 2014.
A week later, there was the trip to Cincinnati, where I sat in Section 154 of Paul Brown Stadium and watched Pittsburgh pull away from the Bengals with 25 fourth quarter points for a very satisfying 42-21 victory. The end zone my group sat in was the one where the Steelers scored all of those points in the final period. And to see so many Terrible Towels waving in unison as the road fans seemed to outnumber the home fans by two-to-one after the mass exodus of orange and black in the final moments......I couldn't have written a better ending to my first Steelers road trip.
Two weeks after that, I was back at Heinz Field to see the Steelers win their third straight game (and 10th of the season) to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since that not-so-fun 2011 campaign. And like every game, starting with the one in Cincinnati, I enthusiastically waved the old and "lucky" Terrible Towel my mom found in the street years ago, as Pittsburgh's much-maligned defense played maybe its most-dominant game of the season in a 20-12 victory over the Chiefs.
There would be an 11th victory a week later and an AFC North title. But the price was pretty stiff in the form of the knee injury to Bell, which, more-than-likely, dampened any hopes of that moving train picking up steam in January.
That Terrible Towel wasn't so "lucky," when it was waving on Josh Harris and Ben Tate, but no good luck charm is undefeated, nor is any fan of any team in any sport.
As a long-time Pirates fan, I was more than happy to embrace and enjoy their back-to-back winning seasons and wild card berths, and maybe I carried that feeling with me as the Steelers started playing some (in my mind) unexpectedly awesome football right around Halloween.
I was sad when the Steelers 2014 train made its last stop around 11 p.m. on Saturday (really didn't want to get off), but it was one of the most fun sports rides I've had in a long time.