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Steelers’ playoff loss brings anger, not heartbreak

Steelers fans have seen some heartbreaking playoff defeats.

Sunday’s 45-42 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Jaguars at Heinz Field wasn’t one of them.

Hearts weren’t broken, but rather TV screens, drinking glasses, maybe a cell phone or two. Any object that could have been kicked, punched or thrown by angry Steelers fans was in danger Sunday afternoon.

The Steelers’ wildly entertaining 2017 season has come to a premature end. We laughed and cried with this team, from JuJu Smith-Schuster chaining his bike on the sideline to Ryan Shazier fighting to walk again. We tolerated anthem controversies and flying water coolers and celebrated last-second field goals.

This team, only the fourth Steelers team to go 13-3 or better, deserved a place in history.

Until Sunday’s pitiful performance, that is.

Last year, the Steelers laid their customary egg at Gillette Stadium but at least advanced a round further in the playoffs for the second straight year.

In 2015, the Steelers squeezed every last drop they could out of an injury-ravaged team before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champions in Denver.

In 2014, the Steelers were one-and-done in the postseason but they at least ended a two-year playoff drought.

This year’s exit wasn’t so honorable.

The Steelers spent too much time guaranteeing wins over the Patriots and tweeting about contract gripes and not enough time preparing for this game. The Jaguars, meanwhile, set out to prove that their 30-9 win in Week 5 wasn’t a fluke by taking a little more than a quarter to recreate that 21-point margin.

Oh, the Steelers didn’t go down without a fight. Three times they battled back to within a touchdown, but unlike the Steelers’ wild-card loss to the Jaguars a decade ago, this wasn’t a comeback that fell agonizingly short. This was a comeback that could have been completed if it weren’t for some facepalm decisions by the Steelers’ braintrust.

Trailing 14-0 late in the first quarter, the Steelers faced fourth-and-1 at the Jaguars’ 21. Needing inches, Ben Roethlisberger tossed the ball eight yards backwards to Le’Veon Bell, who lost four yards on the play.

In the second half, the Jaguars were hearing footsteps. Their lead was just 28-21. The Steelers forced punts on the first two Jaguars possessions after halftime. The second was partially blocked by Robert Golden, giving the Steelers the ball at the Jacksonville 48. Then on fourth down and about a foot, when Roethlisberger could have dove forward for a first down just as easily as Steelers fans could have reached and grabbed their Iron City, the Steelers instead decided to challenge A.J. Bouye, who yielded a 22.5 passer rating on balls thrown his way this season.

The pass to Smith-Schuster fell incomplete, and there went the Steelers’ momentum.

Twice more the Jaguars restored their 14-point lead, and twice more the Steelers answered to pull within a touchdown.

With his players furiously attempting to catch the Jaguars, however, Mike Tomlin wanted to outdo Todd Haley’s stupidity. After Bell took a lateral from Roethlisberger and ran for an 8-yard touchdown to make the score 42-35 with 2:18 left, Tomlin ordered an onside kick instead of using two timeouts and the two-minute warning to try to get the ball back.

The Steelers might have been a 9-7 team this season without Chris Boswell, but when it comes to onside kicks, Boswell will forever be known as Mr. Rabona. He couldn’t even get this one to go 10 yards, and three Leonard Fournette plunges later Josh Lambo kicked the game-clinching field goal.

Even trailing 45-35 with 1:45 left and no timeouts, the Steelers didn’t stop trying.

And the coaching staff didn’t stop blundering.

Martavis Bryant got to the Jaguars’ 5-yard line after catching a 42-yard pass with 47 seconds left. Rather than call for a field goal that the Steelers would need anyway and then try an onside kick when it would actually be appropriate, Tomlin kept the offense on the field and officially turned the final seconds into garbage time.

Smith-Schuster was the trash collector, catching a touchdown pass from Roethlisberger with one second left to make the final score 45-42.

If someone said before the game that the final score would be 45-42, you’d think the game would be a classic. But this could turn out to be the least memorable game in NFL history in which both teams broke 40 points.

Sort of like the 2017 Steelers season. A lot happened, but the disappointing end will make most of it very forgettable.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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