Kevin Gorman: A season of Super Bowl hopes spoiled for Steelers
What a wild, weird scene it was Sunday at Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers saw their season once again come down to a fumble, a field goal and an interception.
The Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 16-13, on a 35-yard field goal by Matt McCrane, only to stay on the field and watch the Cleveland-Baltimore finish on the Jumbotron. Their hearts dropped as Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley picked off a pass by Baker Mayfield to help the Ravens beat the Browns to clinch the AFC North title.
Excruciating doesn’t even come close to describing the disappointment of a season that started with Super Bowl aspirations and ended with the Steelers missing the playoffs for the first time in five years.
This was pure torture.
“Yes, to say the least,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “You can’t even enjoy the win because you’re standing at the cliff, just waiting for something to happen.”
That was the story of their season, one that humbled a proud franchise that owns six Lombardi trophies as Super Bowl champions. The cruel irony is the Steelers finally finished off a must-win game — with a kicker signed four days earlier — only to see their hopes vanish.
Weird as it was to hear Pittsburgh fans cheering for Cleveland, it was worse the Steelers were counting on the Browns to save their season. The same Browns that tied the Steelers in the opener, a game marred by interceptions and fumbles and missed field goals.
“It’s frustrating because we put ourselves in this position like that,” Heyward said. “It hurts. To know that you gave it all in this game right here but yet you’re still looking around, thinking, ‘We’ve got to get somebody else to do their job?’
“That’s not how we wanted this season to go.”
The Ravens’ 26-24 victory over the Browns was a reminder of all that went wrong for the Steelers. The Browns forced a goal-line fumble by Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, only to see officials signal a touchdown and whistle dead their fumble recovery return for a touchdown. The Browns also missed a field goal and then threw a game-ending interception.
But it wasn’t the Browns’ loss to Baltimore that cost the Steelers a spot in the playoffs. It was Ben Roethlisberger’s interception in the end zone at Denver, Chris Boswell’s slip on a missed field goal at Oakland and the fourth-quarter fumbles by Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster at New Orleans. It was losing at home to the Chiefs, Ravens and Chargers, the last of which saw the Steelers blow a 16-point halftime lead.
“We lacked our finish. We lacked stepping up in those critical moments,” Heyward said. “In those critical situations, whether it was offense or defense, when we needed a play we weren’t getting them.”
That’s what will stick with Heyward, as it will the rest of us.
The Steelers have no one to blame but themselves.
It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers were 7-2-1, appearing to cruise to another AFC North title. It was only two weeks ago they defeated their nemesis, the New England Patriots, and were positioned for a first-round bye. Now, they will be watching the playoffs the same way they watched the Browns-Ravens: On television, as spectators.
“It’s tough. You want to win a Super Bowl every year — every team does — and only one team gets to,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We made the playoffs the last few years, so we’ve been a little spoiled in that sense. We got a little spoiled because we went to a lot of Super Bowls early, right? So we thought we were going to do it every year or every other year or every third year. It’s not that easy.
“Look at teams that have never been there or teams between Super Bowls or playoff runs. We can spoiled here as players but we still strive for that every year.”
It isn’t just striving for the Steelers. It’s the standard, something Mike Tomlin treats as a mantra. The Steelers have so much talent that they could have made a playoff run in a wide-open AFC but they took a spot in the postseason for granted and squandered too many opportunities.
“Woulda, coulda, shoulda,” Roethlisberger said. “I could sit here and say, ‘Yeah, we’d be dangerous in the playoffs,’ but we didn’t make it so it doesn’t matter. But you always like your chances.”
The Steelers liked them a lot less when watching their chances on the scoreboard, seeing them end with the same mistakes that were the story of their season, a season that was as spoiled as their Super Bowl hopes.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.