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The greatest day that wasn't meant to be in Steelers history

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The Steelers needed several things to happen in order to qualify for the postseason entering Week 17 in 2013. Nearly every tumbler fell into place. Seemingly by cruel punishment, the Steelers missed the playoffs, but it was the most exciting day in a long time.

Donald Miralle

Great days for the Steelers end raising Lombardi Trophies in celebration, not raising hands in frustration.

They end with joyous embraces around the locker room, not somber pack-ups before end-of-year meetings.

Rare is it for any team to come together and watch the drama of the impossible unfolding from multiple satellite feeds from around the country. The NFL is a cruel temptress; a bitch goddess who taketh away as soon as she giveth.

Wide field goals. Blown calls. An opponent laying down but showing just enough fight to keep a team - a nation - captivated for not just the 60 regulated minutes, but for several more after it.

The Steelers entered Dec. 29, 2013 preparing to defeat the lowly and imploding Cleveland Browns in what was very likely to be their final game of the season. Unlike 2012, the team would play for the possibility of qualifying for the postseason, but the odds of that happening were on roughly the same level as winning their yearly salary in the Powerball.

They needed to defeat the Browns - a task accomplished nine times in the team's previous 10 games - and they needed the Jets to beat the Dolphins as well as the Bengals to defeat the Ravens. All of that would play out roughly by 4:30 p.m. ET. If all tumblers fell into place, the Steelers would need a win from the playoff-bound Chiefs over the Chargers, a team similarly positioned for a miracle run to the postseason as Pittsburgh.

We joked about it here on Behind The Steel Curtain. "It could happen!" was said kind of tongue-in-cheek a few times during radio spots and in columns. Looking at each scenario on its face, it did seem possible. Cleveland was an absolute train wreck at that point. It takes something special internally to find ways to lose nine times in 10 games. And their only win came over a Baltimore Ravens team that had just been given a beating so savage by the New England Patriots, it was fair to wonder if they were able to recover to defeat the AFC North champion Bengals. The Jets were the league's shining example of the importance of a quarterback - if they had even an average one, they would have been at least a 10-win team.

And why couldn't the Chiefs beat the Chargers? Division opponents have a way of competing hard in the last game of the season, even if it was likely Chiefs coach Andy Reid would lay down and spend more energy preparing for the Colts, their AFC Wild Card round opponents.

It could happen, right?

I went into the game answering "Nah," to myself, just to not allow the excitement to cloud my better judgment. Nothing worse in this game than getting excited about something only to see it crash down in a fiery explosion of "what were you thinking?"

"The Steelers will beat Cleveland," I told Todd Steward of 92.3 ESPN Radio in Selinsgrove earlier that week on his show. "The rest of the scenarios, it feels like you have to be a NASA engineer to lay it all out, but losses for the Dolphins and Ravens in the early games, then a loss from the Chargers would put Pittsburgh in the playoffs as the sixth-seed.

"And we've all seen what can happen when the Steelers are the sixth seed."

Right after I said it, I wish I hadn't. There's that hope again. The goddess that is the NFL hates hope. She makes it extremely difficult to obtain and when you do, she makes it even harder to come to fruition. Besides, I just compared, on live radio, the Steelers' 2005 magical run through the AFC playoffs and to One for the Thumb to this year's team, a bipolar group without a real identity that happened to start the season 0-4.

On its face, you would have picked the Steelers to beat the Browns in Pittsburgh. The Dolphins were fading ever since their 34-28 dagger-like victory over Pittsburgh - a win in sealed when just the outer portion of Antonio Brown's foot hit the sideline in what would have been the most miraculous touchdown since the Immaculate one. The Ravens had been beaten within an inch of their respective Super Bowl championship-defending lives. They weren't going to respond after that. Any fight they had, they would have given it to New England. The Patriots took that fight, and the Ravens' pride as well as their playoff chances, and crammed it deep inside their hindparts. Cincinnati could win that game by quite a bit.

It came to be in my head, much to my heart's dismay, this not only could happen, it probably should happen. The key here is the Chiefs and Chargers. And that's the later game.

"It's all going to come down to whether the #Chiefs play to win," I proclaimed on Twitter. "Please, Coach Reid. Your guys get paid to win. Don't let the #Chargers advance."

He didn't respond, probably for several reasons, the biggest of which clearly being that he had no intentions of playing his guys.

Truth be told, I stopped watching the Steelers massacre the Browns after the first half because Cleveland's effort in that game was flat-out disrespectful toward the paying fans in attendance. I raged about this via Twitter and on BTSC's second half game thread. I even said "I wouldn't be surprised of Coach Chud (Rob Chudzynski) was already fired. This team has absolutely no desire to be there. It seemed like the Steelers felt that as well, and both sides seem to just carry each other, like two boxers in a fixed fight, throughout the first half. I didn't even want to imagine what the second half would be like.

The game ended in a 20-7 Steelers victory, perhaps the least honorable win I've seen, through no fault of their own. Chud was fired not long after the game, much to the surprise of people. I never got that. If people watched the same Week 17 performance I did, they couldn't have been surprised. Either Chud was actually fired much earlier than that, or he had completely lost the hearts and minds of his team.

More importantly than the standard Browns December futility was how the Jets had pulled away from the Dolphins. It seemed fitting the Jets had taken a 20-7 victory of their own, and the screens flipped over to the Bengals and Ravens.

It was weird. Neither quarterback could help but turn the ball over. Joe Flacco clearly looked injured - or maybe he just looked like the constipated Frankensteinish statue he normally looks like - and fought his way through a bunch of mediocre receivers and zero pass protection to toss three picks and a bunch of other errant passes - one of the last ones being a pick six from maligned Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Cincinnati waltzed over the defending paper champions 34-17.

Just as I predicted, hoped for and feared, it was all coming down to the Chiefs and Chargers.

Twitter exploded with the news of the Chiefs confirming the benching of all meaningful players, and their intention to start something called Chase Daniel at quarterback.

"It won't happen," I said, in full knowledge it still very well could happen. The Chargers didn't plan for what they're going to see. The level of talent for the Chiefs will certainly be a disadvantage but the element of surprise is on their side. Still, it won't happen.

Knile Davis, a role-playing running back, would be the workhorse. The Chiefs scored first, quickly and impressively. San Diego responded but Kansas City won the first quarter, and with it, drew massive support from Steeler Nation, most of which now tuning in to what could be the most remarkable turn of events in two decades.

The open thread posted on BTSC was being viewed by thousands of people, many of whom admitted they didn't usually comment but were now because of the drama unfolding. It was like a bi-coastal cyber-party, the ultimate experience for the displaced fan. Excitement hung heavily, and as the Chiefs took a shocking 10-point lead, it appeared possible, with just one turnover likely sealing their victory, the Chiefs' B-squad could complete the quadfecta of impossibility; a win puts the Steelers in the postseason, making them the first 0-4 team since, incidentally, the 1992 Chargers, to make the playoffs.

A date at Cincinnati the following week was at stake, and with absolutely nothing the Steelers could do about it, chants of "LET'S GO CHIEFS!" broke out on Twitter. Since the Chiefs were playing for nothing, their fans sat back and enjoyed the spontaneous support from a fellow AFC stalwart. Many of them emailed, Tweeted and commented, expressing their hope for a Steelers win, which was, in turn, a Chiefs win.

It was no longer about the teams on the field. It was about the team watching from home. Some might call that "backing into the playoffs," or "needing help to get in." Steelers Nation simply called it an unbelievably exciting and nearly unprecedented situation.

This wasn't supposed to happen. It just wasn't. Sure, the second half of 2013 version of the Steelers probably could have beaten the Vikings, or the Titans or a few other teams that ended up drafting earlier than them despite putting a tick in the "L" column, but that wasn't important. It was coming down to this game, so the fate of the Steelers' season was ultimately going to be judged on the Chiefs' ability to hang onto a 10-point lead against a superior opponent.

Of course, there's no way a day like this would end as neat and tidy as that. The Chargers found their rhythm, and methodically picked apart the overmatched taxi squad doubling as their Week 17 opponents. A Nick Novak field goal with 3:21 left in the game tied it at 24.

"Let's see what Chase Daniel is made of."

It wasn't pretty, but it was 57 yards on 10 plays in the Chiefs' four minute offense. He completed passes, he bought time, the Chiefs ran well and the Chargers committed penalties.

It all resulted in a quiet stroll to the Chargers' 26-yard line for Ryan Succop. The Steelers' season hung in the balance of a 41-yard field goal. Odds would seem to favor Succop, a kicker who was 6-for-7 in the 40-49 range in 2013, and 35-for-47 from that range in his career.

He's a Pittsburgh native too. Everything is on the Steelers' side here, isn't it? Did we dare believe?

I did. I dared. I even cleared out the space around me for what could be a huge celebration complete with belly slide in the yard (it's a long story but it's what I did when Tommy Maddox led the Steelers back for a win over the Browns in the 2002 playoffs. I've been doing it ever since after comeback wins).

I stood, frozen, hands shaking during the commercial timeout, trying to come up with a headline in the event Succop made it, sending the Steelers to the postseason in the most improbable fashion imaginable.

A few candidates.

"THAT. JUST. HAPPENED."
"LIVING TO FIGHT ANOTHER SUNDAY"
"UNBELIEVABLE!"

After a few other ideas came and went, it was obvious nothing but exaggerated hyperbole was going to come to me, and perhaps that was just simply the only way to describe what it would have been.

I decided to let serendipity decide for me, should he make the kick - definitely not a gimme, but on a day where every other tumbler that should have missed its target didn't, certainly the Pittsburgh product Succop would hit his. He was pretty much the only regular Chiefs player participating in the game, it stands to reason, if the others overachieved, all he would need to do is what he'd been highly successful at all year.

The NFL is a cruel temptress; a bitch goddess who sent the kick just wide right. He couldn't have missed it by more than a yard. I was hopping around in a manner that suggested just how close it was; like watching basketball players on the bench after a game-winning shot attempt rimmed out at the buzzer.

Dreading the notion of overtime with the Chargers carrying all momentum, I slunk back into my couch, wondering how what seemed like the easiest tumbler to fall missed. Even if it came from the flailing arm of Flacco, Kirkpatrick didn't intercept passes often. The Dolphins beat the Jets several times previously. The Browns can...well, no, the Steelers beating the Browns was probably more likely than Succop hitting a 41-yard field goal, but EVERYTHING ELSE went according to the unrealistic plan.

Perhaps the Chargers just had a bit more weighing in their favor on the grand Karma scale. It's not like their positioning for the postseason was any more likely than the Steelers' was. They were 5-7 at one point, they got hot at the end of the year and they needed every one of the same scenarios the Steelers did to happen. They had the advantage of going into the game with the chance to notch their ninth win, while the Steelers could only get to eight.

That kick didn't define the day, but it will anyway, and it will forever.

Perhaps, for the sake of the tortured souls of those in Steeler Nation, the missed kick could have been the last play of the game. In retrospect, it could have been easier to just have watched the miss secure a regulation victory for San Diego, and caused their travel director to click the "ok" button on the hotel reservations the following weekend in the Queen City.

Instead, the goddess laid forward her retribution on those who dared believe.

Kansas City lost the toss and sat helplessly watching the Chargers convert a fake punt on a wild play that ended up being the source of anger for Steeler Nation - outside Succop, of course. The ball was snapped to the up back, safety Eric Weddle, who moved the pile forward a bit, but his forward momentum appeared to have been stopped. The officials, clearly unprepared for a fake punt (ironically, showing the Chargers, as opposed to the Chiefs, as the team willing to use the element of surprise in their favor), didn't blow the whistle upon Weddle's stopped forward momentum. What they did see, however, was Weddle's helmet come off during the play, right before Weddle lost the ball.

In what looked like a fumble, the Chiefs picked it up, running straight to the end zone with Steeler Nation likely behind him in spirit, screaming in full realization they were witnessing a miracle.

The play was blown dead anyway. The rule is a play is automatically stopped the instant a player's helmet comes off, preventing the hundreds of times each season a helmet-less player is speared by an opponent, causing death and paralysis. Nevermind the fact contact is made after the whistle all the time, and simply stopping the play will not protect a player in a pile who isn't wearing a helmet.

It negated the fumble, but Weddle's forward progress was deemed to have been stopped where his helmet came off, which appeared to be well after his forward momentum had, by all intents and purposes, been stopped. It doesn't take an average viewer more than a few games to see whenever a player with the ball is stuck in a pile, officials blow the play dead even if a player is creeping backward or forward slightly. The officials didn't expect the fake punt, and because of that, they didn't blow the whistle at the point his progress was halted. He got an additional push from the Chargers behind him, his helmet came off and then the officials reacted to what was going on, but not before the ball came out, while his helmet was on.

It was pandemonium.

To be fair, it was an extremely difficult play to read in real time. With so much happening, and safety being the league's "priority," they saw a helmet off the head of a player and allowed that to become the most important aspect.

Reasonable heads would eventually prevail, and the issue can't be squarely blamed on the officials (although it would seem only fair for them to always expect a fake punt, in case it, you know, happens). The same rule reared its ugly head toward the Steelers in a Week 14 game against the Ravens. Le'Veon Bell was knocked senseless by two Ravens defenders right at the goal line, breaking his helmet and sending it flying off his head.

The officials then took the literal interpretation of the rule, measuring the exact point when the helmet flew off, and spotting the ball just shy of the goal line despite the fact Bell, unconscious at the time, fell forward into the end zone.

It's a perfect example of the over-regulation of today's game leading to silly and ridiculous conclusions. The point of the rule is to protect the player. Instead of enforcing helmet-to-helmet contact - a key requirement of the league in terms of its quarterbacks - nothing was done about the fact Bell was knocked asleep by not one but two Ravens defenders. But the officials can huddle and waste five minutes determining at what point his helmet, removed by breakage caused by the force of two other helmets hitting his, came off his head, thus negating a touchdown Bell earned.

It's easily the most ridiculously short-sighted rule the NFL has created. While blame can be passed to that rule as a reason the Chargers were given a first down, it ultimately serves as a black eye on what was otherwise an amazing game.

The Chargers' would eventually be halted, being forced to settle for a field goal, and giving Daniel one last shot to pull off a miracle.

He looked the part, having advanced the Chiefs down to San Diego's 36-yard line. His miracle-making magic would run out, as would the fuel of whatever was driving the Steelers' playoff hopes.

Davis was dropped for a five-yard loss on first down, and Daniel fired three straight incompletions, giving the Chargers the victory.

The bitch goddess did it again. She gave us exactly what we expected at the start of that day. A second consecutive year without a postseason game, but the manner in which she did it violates our Constitutional freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. The Ravens could have won and finished what they started when they had a commanding lead on the final wild card spot in the AFC, but they fell apart. The Dolphins could have avoided self-destruction and done something to save their chances just once down the stretch. The Jets could simply have ridden their terrible quarterback to the same depths they had when the Steelers trashed them for their first win of the year in Week 6.

The Steelers wouldn't have lost to that Browns team once in 100 games, but at the very least, the Chiefs, laying down in front of their division foes, could simply have allowed San Diego to win by four scores, thus negating any undue drama or stress for Steelers fans.

It had to go down to the very last fibers on the fuse before exploding in our faces. Succop's kick, a fumble that wasn't and, as it turns out, another official's gaffe - the Chargers had seven players on one side of the long snapper on Succop's field goal miss, a miss the NFL's head of officials took to Twitter the following day to point that out. Another five yards, another field goal opportunity. No way he'd miss it, right?

Right? No way any of this would have happened. Due to that improbability, it wasn't a sense of anger or resentment (although that helmet rule will create far more problems than danger it will prevent). It was simply the most exciting day of football for Steeler Nation in the previous three seasons.

The team did what it was supposed to do. A bunch of wild things nearly happened. The Ravens and Browns both lost (thus making a Bengals win acceptable). We bonded with Chiefs fans, we had a knock-down, drag-out war with Chargers fans, a fan base we probably didn't care about at all prior to that game.

I wrote the Season's Over story, complete with a big, depressing picture of Succop on the cover. I posted the story about the officiating error, drawing the ire of insecure Chargers fans who could have been celebrating and not flaming out their troll-ness on BTSC. I sat back, finally closing the computer after an embarrassing 15 hours of football watching and writing, realizing I've got nothing until the draft.

My last words of the day, aimed at no one in particular, "That was the best day of football in a long time." And it was. Week 17 was a throwaway last year, playing an equally pathetic Browns team. Ben was hurt down the stretch of 2011, Mendenhall went down with a torn ACL, that team really was not as good as its 12-4 record indicated. Seasons have ended in far worse ways than that.

It was exciting, dramatic, so far outside the usual it should be remembered by Steelers fans for a long time. On top of that, it shows this team - one that was far younger in on-field execution than the "Old and Slow" crowd wants to believe - they should have confidence in each other as a team capable of getting another few plays a game to turn a 16-16 slump into 10 wins and maybe a division championship next year.

Maybe the NFL goddess isn't such a bitch after all.