Promising season ends abruptly for Steelers
PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers roared through a perfect December with the kind of urgency that stoked memories of Super Bowls past.
They won their first division title in four years, looking like a team peaking at the right time.
The valley came quickly.
The team that stumbled to a 30-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night in the AFC wild-card game looked more like the enigmatic work in progress of September. The offensive line struggled to block Baltimore's relentless and resurgent front seven. The NFL's second-ranked offense produced three field goals and a touchdown and didn't lead over the final 44 minutes while turning over the ball three times. The defense couldn't contain Joe Flacco when it mattered.
And while an 11-5 regular season following consecutive 8-8 years is not to be dismissed, the Steelers still haven't won a game in January in four years - and counting.
''We have a long time to think about this,'' defensive end Cam Heyward said.
And the process won't be pleasant. Pittsburgh struggled to find sustained momentum while team MVP Le'Veon Bell watched helplessly with his hyperextended right knee under wraps. The trio of Josh Harris, Dri Archer and Ben Tate - who'd been in town for barely 96 hours - found little room against the league's fourth-ranked run defense, one bolstered by the return of nose tackle Haloti Ngata from a four-game suspension.
The Steelers ran for 68 yards, but only 43 came from the running backs. The inability to get anything going on the ground allowed Baltimore's piecemeal secondary to drop deep into coverage and keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant in check. The same offense that lit up the Ravens for 43 points in early November finished just one drive in the end zone.
''For sure we would've liked to try to do a lot more on offense, but they pretty much stopped what we were trying to do,'' Harris said. ''We just simply didn't make enough plays.''
On either side of the ball. Pittsburgh's secondary helped spark a 4-0 run to the postseason by keeping the ball from going over their heads. While Flacco only made one completion over 23 yards, the Ravens benefited when Steelers cornerbacks who couldn't keep their hands or their helmets to themselves. Pittsburgh was flagged eight times for 114 yards, including three personal fouls and a 32-yard pass interference penalty that set up a Justin Tucker field goal.
''I think if you watch any NFL team, if they do the things we (did), there's no way they'll win,'' center Maurkice Pouncey said.
Especially with their quarterback less than perfect. Roethlisberger completed 31 of 45 passes for 334 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He also left briefly in the final minutes with what he described as a little ''whiplash'' in his neck. He returned to throw the pick that would seal Pittsburgh's second wild-card loss in four seasons.
The two-time Super Bowl winner has now gone six years without a championship ring. Though he set career highs and franchise records in nearly every major statistical category, he also didn't do what the Steelers pay him handsomely to do: produce a winning effort when the field is cut from 32 to 12.
That, and not the gaudy numbers he put up during 16 weeks of occasional brilliance, is what will linger.
''I don't really care about what I did,'' Roethlisberger said. ''I'm proud of the way this team bounced back from the last two years, got back to the playoffs; obviously didn't end the way we wanted it to. It only ever ends for one team the way they want it to, but I'm proud of the way a lot of young guys stepped up.''
They'll have to make more significant strides in 2015. Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor are among the veterans whose future remains murky at best. Pittsburgh will deal with that when the time comes. Now there's only frustration over what could have been.
''The competitor in me doesn't want to end things this way,'' Harrison said. ''You never want to end on a loss. You want to go out kissing the Lombardi.''
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