PITTSBURGH -- It was the miracle that almost was, that ended before it got started. The Pittsburgh Steelers' postseason run ends early, falling to the Cleveland Browns 48-37 in the Wild Card round.
They say all good things must come to an end. In the NFL, that's harder sometimes than others. And in Pittsburgh, if Ben Roethlisberger walked off the field for the final time wearing a black and gold helmet, it's the end of the greatest quarterback era in Steelers history.
The one-and-only playoff game for the Steelers this season didn't go as planned. It was sloppy. At times, embarrassing. But it showed just how much fight a team led by guys like Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey can bring.
As we look back at Pittsburgh's 2020 season's final game, there aren't many positives. Still, there's more appreciation than a first-round exit usually leaves in this league.
Ben Roethlisberger Was Too Late
Don't doubt the efforts of Ben Roethlisberger. Four interceptions aside, this 17-year veteran threw for 501 yards and four scores in what might have been his final NFL game.
At 38-years-old, that's not too shabby.
The problem wasn't whether or not Roethlisberger had enough in the tank to win this game, it was why did he start so slow? Falling behind 28-0 eliminates most of a team's chances to win. Even if a high snap wasn't his fault, the three interceptions that followed were, and to a degree, so is the loss.
"That half was one of the weirdest halves I've ever been a part of," Roethlisberger said. "You get down early, but you still got a chance. Then, you turn the ball over. We still believed. We still were fighting all the way to the end."
It wasn't the best performance of his career, but it wasn't the worst. Somehow, a four-turnover game left enough room for a compliment.
Why Did the Offense Show Up Only When They Were Losing?
This season, no one was disliked more in Pittsburgh than offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. The Steelers fell behind 28-0 in the first half, which left literally no time for those complaints to surface.
Why? Because Fichtner wasn't holding back.
The Steelers didn't work the ball down the field on short three-yard passes. Roethlisberger opened up the field play-after-play, and it allowed the rest of the group to work well.
Even if James Conner only rushed for 37 yards, he was a part of the offense. The ball was spread out to everyone, with five players finishing with more than 50 receiving yards - Smith-Schuster and Johnson eclipsing the 100-yard mark.
There was so much flow to the offense that it felt like this game could turn around. In four of their last five regular season games, you couldn't say that.
Chances are Fichtner is on his way out of Pittsburgh and with him the conservative play-calling. That being said, it's a shame this team had to waste a year holding back when they could clearly open up the playbook.
Cleveland is For Real
AllSteelers didn't see this coming. In our Wild Card round playoff predictions, not one of us believed the Browns were going to come into Heinz Field and walk away victorious.
Baker Mayfield threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb combined for 124 rushing yards and two scores. And without a head coach and offensive play-caller, the Browns scored 48 points against the Steelers.
Earlier in the week, Smith-Schuster said the Browns are "the Browns," and Cleveland took it personal. You heard them shouting, "the Browns are the Browns," as they marched back to the locker room to celebrate, and guess what, they are not wrong.
"You know, I don't regret what I said," Smith-Schuster said. "I said the Browns is the Browns. They came out and they played a hell of a game. You know, there's been games where we feel we lose them and today wasn't our night and hopefully the same Browns will show up next week against the same opponent and go out and do the same thing they did tonight and have a hell of a game."
The Kansas City Chiefs are a different team. Heck, they're different than anyone in the NFL, Steelers included. But if the Browns pull off another win, there's something we all need to talk about.
'Don't Live in Our Fears'
The Steelers are known as much for their "Tomlinisms" than they are for their football, and few of the head coach's catchphrases are as popular as, "we don't live in our fears."
That didn't exist in a crucial 4th and 1 play in the third quarter. As the Steelers were down 12, pushing for a playoff comeback, they decided to punt on their own 39-yard line.
The Browns scored on the next drive.
"We had some stops, wanted to pin them down, maybe provide the short field for our offense," Tomlin explained about the fourth down decision. "We had maybe two or three consecutive stops. I just wanted to keep the momentum going in terms of field positioning. But we weren't good enough in terms of doing that."
It might've been a turning point to the comeback attempt, but more than anything, it was another example of how far this team still needed to go. Play-calling has been questionable all season long, and in crunch time, that only seemed to get worse.
If they don't punt and somehow win this game, no one is talking about the 4th and 1 decision. But that, unfortunately, isn't how this works.
The Steelers' playoff loss can be chalked up to plenty of things - Roethlisberger's turnovers, the lack of defensive stops, or the Browns making way more out of JuJu Smith-Schuster's comments on Cleveland being Cleveland. But now, we have to put this 4th down call on the list. And it kind of sucks that we do.
Did We Just Watch Big Ben's Final Run?
Oh, to be a fly on the bench watching Big Ben and Maurkice Pouncey share words as they sat, embracing what could be their final moments on Heinz Field.
"I love that guy," Roethlisberger said on Pouncey. "He is one of the best competitors and teammates I've ever had. It's been so much fun to share a football field with him. I hate that it ended the way it did. I just wanted to apologize to him that I wanted to win it for him."
The Steelers' longtime captains, Pro Bowlers, teammates and friends might have ended their NFL careers Sunday night. Neither one is scheduled to be a free agent this offseason, but with Roethlisberger inching closer to 40-years-old, the two will enter the offseason with questions to answer.
Pouncey has said time and time again that he'll strongly consider retirement when Roethlisberger does. Even after a 12-4 season and the first playoff appearance in three years, it's hard to say seeing No. 7 on the field next season wouldn't be surprising.
Seeing the clip of these two crying on the bench after the game was rough. Win or lose, Roethlisberger and Pouncey have brought more to the city of Pittsburgh than any athletes to wear black and gold. And if it's how this all ends, 501 yards and four touchdowns isn't a bad way to go.
"It's going to start between me and God, a lot of praying. A lot of talking with my family, discussions, decisions," Roethlisberger said about his retirement decision. "I still have a year left on my contract. I hope the Steelers want me back, if that's the way we go. There will be a lot of discussions. But now is not the time for that."