I'm a veteran of many Steelers playoff games.
I've been following the team for 36 years, and to sort of borrow from head coach Mike Tomlin, who often likes to say just one of his nine years has been a good one, I've only witnessed the ultimate end of a season twice--2005 and 2008.
The other 34 years, well, they've ended either way short, a few games short or minutes short of finding that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow all fans dream about when they decide to invest very real emotions in a sports franchise. Of course, being a veteran fan of many playoff defeats, I'm quite familiar with the post-loss words from those anchors on TV. Not the sports anchors, but the main news anchors: "Gosh, golly, our Steelers came up short, but shucks, we'll get 'em next year." And then, they turn it over to some reporter on location who interviews disappointed but optimistic fans that pretty much share the same sentiments.
After Pittsburgh's heart-wrenching 23-16 loss to the Broncos Sunday evening in the AFC Divisional round, those same old words were echoed again by reporters and fans on the scene. And since this is 2016, there were also countless words of encouragement via social media from team supporters and players expressing their thanks for an awesome Steelers season and how proud fans were of the guys and vice versa.
Included in those thoughts was the sentiment that, well, gosh darn it, if not for all those injuries--Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, DeAngelo Williams and even Ben Roethlisberger, who started the game and was pretty awesome despite having a sprained throwing shoulder--the Steelers may have won going away and would now be preparing for an AFC Championship clash with the Patriots next Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.
"A healthy offense combined with a young and perhaps rapidly improving defense? Super Bowl 50 would have been ours! But that's OK. Watch out 2016!"
But I'm just not feeling any of that right now. In fact, since the moment Roethlisberger was sacked on fourth and five with less than two minutes remaining and Pittsburgh trailing, 20-13, what I've mostly been feeling is numbness. Add in a little anger, disbelief and lots of sadness, and you pretty much get the picture.
Why am I feeling all of these things? Because it's the playoffs. Like Bill Cowher once said about losing in the postseason: "It's like you hit a brick wall." Fact is, if the Steelers would have found a way to win Sunday's clash against a heavily-favored Denver team, I'd be feeling and expressing complete opposite emotions, and my week ahead would look tremendous, what with dreams of a Super Bowl appearance oh so close to coming to fruition.
As for those Broncos being heavy favorites, it just didn't seem like they were that much of a better team, even with all those injuries Pittsburgh was forced to deal with. Fact is, from late in the first quarter through early in the final period, it felt like the Steelers were the superior team and deserved to advance.
If the Steelers were still alive in the playoffs today, I wouldn't be stifling my emotions; why should I stifle them now after a loss and try to put up a front about injuries and what the team achieved, despite so much adversity?
Expressing gratitude just doesn't seem genuine to me (at least not at this very moment). Don't get me wrong. I'm not a spoiled fan who is never satisfied; I'm a loving fan who is just pretty angry my team didn't keep that awesome playoff locomotive moving in the direction of the Super Bowl and that the final stop had to be the Heartbreak Hotel.
Gosh darn it, the Steelers were still trying to win Sunday's game regardless of their troubles. Therefore, it's perfectly acceptable to feel crappy about the fact that they didn't. Tomlin was reportedly in tears as he addressed his team after the game, which is both endearing and comforting. He, like most fans and his charges, wanted that win so badly. "I'm glad I have a coach like that," said Cam Heyward. "It hurts even worse, because he's right in the battle with us."
That's great stuff, and it is awesome to read about that side of Tomlin, a man who, well, if he hasn't proven to you what a great coach he is after the 2015 season, he never will be able to.
Of course, nobody feels worse right now than running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who, just a few weeks ago, was a player barely on the periphery of things and now is someone who will forever be part of Steelers infamy, after fumbling early in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh clinging to a 13-12 lead.
It would be nice to see Toussaint, who appears to have the kind of talent to not only give the Steelers backfield great depth but also become a valuable weapon to an already explosive offense, bounce back from this adversity next year and get a chance to redeem himself in another postseason game.
But those kinds of stories--the ones about an emotional head coach and an underdog running back--are for down-the-line, like in March or April.
Right now, I'm too busy feeling sad about a Steelers playoff loss. A day or so after Pittsburgh clinched a postseason berth, I was talking to my mom about it, when she asked me, "Who has the best chance of winning the Super Bowl?" Without much hesitation (and, believe it or not, without much bias), I said, "I think it will be either the Steelers or Patriots that make it out of the AFC." It could have and probably should have come down to those two teams next week, injuries be damned.
"Go get'em next year!" just doesn't feel like an honest emotion to me at this very moment.