“Hopefully we’ll see them in the Super Bowl,” the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end said after Sunday’s 31-28 loss.
That statement isn’t far-fetched. The Steelers reminded why they entered the season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. They burned a good defense for 429 yards behind the arm of Ben Roethlisberger. They sacked Drew Brees twice, stopped the Saints three times in the second half and held the Alvin Kamara-Mark Ingram rushing tandem to 58 yards on the ground.
But it was all just a tease.
The Steelers (8-6-1) are poised to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013 because such inspired play was overshadowed far too often by curious losses and late-game mistakes and bad kicks.
The Steelers are equipped to go on a playoff run right now. They won’t get that chance unless the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens drop the season finale at home to the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday to close out a season slipping away. They need to win plus a Browns victory; a Steelers win and a Titans-Colts tie could also get them to the postseason.
And that’s on them more than bad officiating or bad luck. And everyone in the locker room seemed to know it.
“Anybody can beat anybody or lose to anybody — we figured that out this year pretty easily,” guard David DeCastro said.
“Can’t make no excuses,” receiver Antonio Brown said. “Have to find a way to put ourselves in a better position.”
They can point to several examples. The Week 1 tie in Cleveland. The four-turnover game in Denver in Week 12. The 16-point blown lead to the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13, followed by a loss at Oakland that featured Roethlisberger missing most of the second half with a rib injury and Chris Boswell missing two field goals.
In the two games since, the Steelers have showed resolve and desperation. But a team that capped Sunday’s fourth quarter with a Stevan Ridley fumble, a turnover on downs on a fake punt and a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble clearly has lost its touch.
The same breaks the Steelers created during last season’s 13-3 campaign have closed up this season, as they’ve gone 1-4 since a six-game winning streak in October and November.
While the 2017 Steelers were 7-1 in games decided by five points or less, this year’s group is 2-4-1 in such games.
Tomlin hasn’t had the hot hand with his calls. The decision to have Ridley taking the handoff on a crucial third-and-2 and the fake punt that took the ball out of the hands of Roethlisberger will surely haunt.
And letting Brees convert a late-game third-and-20 on his way to 326 yards — the most against Pittsburgh since Week 4 — falls on the entire defense.
“We’re not a bad team. We’re a really good team,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We’ve got a lot of offensive tools. We have a Hall of Fame quarterback who’s pretty damn good, also. To say we’re nervous about being down, it’s never that. We just need time and opportunity. You’ve got to come to work next week and control what we can control. It’s not a matter of feeling sorry. It’s a matter of, we kind of caused it and we’ve got to live with it.”
Asked whether he’d become a Browns fan for the week, Foster said, “Never a Cleveland Browns fan. Just hope they play good ball.”
The Steelers have gotten help before. In 2015, the Bills knocked off the Jets to help the Steelers squeeze into the AFC wild card. Pittsburgh defeated Cincinnati but lost to the Broncos in the divisional round with Brown injured.
Roethlisberger is hoping for one more chance.
“The story’s not written yet,” Roethlisberger said. “I told the guys in there … I said, ‘Listen, it’s not over yet; this chapter of the story’s not done. Obviously we don’t control it, but let’s see what happens.'”