Tom Brady denied the Steelers a trip to the Super Bowl for the third time in his career Sunday, leading the Patriots to a 36-17 win over the Steelers in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium.
This loss didn’t come with the immediate heartbreak of last year’s playoff loss or some other Steelers’ playoff losses in the last decade. There was no Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble. There was no “What just happened” overtime touchdown pass from Tim Tebow. There was no 32-yard scramble on fourth-and-2 by David Garrard.
After their playoff loss at Denver last year, when Toussaint’s fumble set up the winning drive, Mike Tomlin talked about how he was looking forward to scouting for the draft. The Steelers were three minutes away from beating the eventual Super Bowl champions without Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. There was a sense that the Steelers, if they could stay healthy, had a legitimate shot to win their seventh Super Bowl in 2016.
All that optimism seemed laughable when the Steelers were 4-5 at midseason, but then they won nine straight. It was their longest winning streak since 2004, but the Patriots terminated both of those streaks in conference title games. They beat the Steelers 41-27 at Pittsburgh in 2004, ending their 15-game run.
Even in that game, the Steelers rallied. They fell behind by 21 and pulled to within 11.
On Sunday, there was no such tease.
This was the Steelers’ biggest margin of defeat in a playoff game since they lost 28-3 to the Drew Bledsoe-led Patriots at New England in the 1996 divisional round. Unlike last season in Denver, there will be no specific plays that haunt Steelers fans for the next eight months.
Instead of a “What if?” hanging over the offseason, there’s a sense of “Now what?”
The Steelers fell to 0-3 against Brady in AFC championship games and 0-5 against him at Gillette Stadium. It might be a tiny consolation to know that James Harrison wants to come back next season. His “I’m not done” quote captures the unfinished business of Sunday’s loss.
But in this century, the only way the Steelers have made it to the Super Bowl is if another team does their dirty work and beats the Patriots in the playoffs, or if the Patriots don’t have Brady.
Sure, the Steelers have advanced one step further in the playoffs in each of the last three years. They lost in the wild-card game in 2014 and the divisional round last year. Roethlisberger has made three straight playoff appearances for the first time in his career. But he turns 35 in two months. Time is running out.
There might be those who say Sunday’s game could have turned out differently had Bell not been injured. Bell hurt his groin early in the game and ran for just 20 yards on six carries. He was out of the game midway through the second quarter.
Bell’s injury isn’t an excuse for the Steelers. They hurt themselves with mistakes early in the game. Sammie Coates alligator-armed Roethlisberger’s pass on third-and-1 on the Steelers’ first drive. Roethlisberger threw a second-and-4 screen pass to Brown directly into the ground on the Steelers’ second drive. Brown could have done some damage on that play if Roethlisberger had thrown a catchable ball. Cobi Hamilton dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone.
So maybe Roethlisberger wouldn’t have had to throw so many times if Bell wasn’t injured. Bell, not Roethlisberger, was the Steelers’ most indispensable player during their nine-game winning streak. He carried the ball at least 20 times in every game that he played since Week 11. In a span of eight games, he ran for 1,172 yards. That pace would have broken Eric Dickerson‘s 32-year-old record of 2,105 in a full season.
Bell’s injury Sunday is just as depressing as the loss itself. At least this injury wasn’t as brutal as his two previous injuries. They didn’t have to put him on a table. Bell at least was able to try playing with the injury.
But like Troy Polamalu in his prime, Bell is the Steelers’ china doll, the guy who you look at to make sure he’s walking OK after every play. The Steelers’ defense wasn’t the same without Polamalu during his career, and their offense isn’t the same without Bell these days.
Even with Bell sidelined, however, that offense would have been better Sunday with Martavis Bryant and Ladarius Green. For different reasons, the Steelers should have exercised a little bit of buyer beware when they drafted Bryant and when they signed Green.
Eli Rogers was looking like the Steelers’ only reliable receiver not named Antonio Brown on Sunday, but his fumble late in the third quarter with the Steelers down 27-9 squashed any chances of a miracle comeback. Jesse James caught five passes in each of the last two playoff games, but he doesn’t have Green’s yards-after-the-catch ability.
The Steelers need these young receivers to mature, and for Bryant to mature off the field, as Roethlisberger perhaps enters the fourth quarter of his career.
That’s right, if you do the math, Roethlisberger might already have played three quarters of his career. He has played 13 years. If he plays four more, that would take him through his age 38 season. Brady will likely be playing at age 40 next year and Peyton Manning played until he was 39, and even then Manning was a shell of himself in his final season.
It’s nice to think that Roethlisberger can remain productive into his late 30s. But he’s no Manning and he’s certainly no Brady.
That’s why the Roethlisberger Era, even if the Steelers win another title, will be defined as one in which the Steelers won multiple championships but couldn’t beat the Patriots.
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