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Division Playoff Recap: The One That Got Away

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When it comes to crushing losses, there are different kinds of disappointment. There are games where your team is clearly overmatched yet fight valiantly, maybe even offer a few glimmers of hope before ultimately falling to the superior team. And then there are the games where they play well enough to win but make just enough mistakes to leave the door open a crack and the other team eventually takes advantage to pull out a win. That one is by far the worst.

It also best describes the Pittsburgh Steelers season ending 23-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs.

The worst feeling as a fan is wondering “What if?” Regardless of outcome, this game was going to have its share of “What ifs?” by virtue of the fact the Steelers were playing without their top running back and All-Pro wide receiver. If DeAngelo Williams plays, does he have a crucial game-altering fumble? If Antonio Brown plays, do the Steelers do better than 1 for 3 in the red zone and 2 for 12 on third down?

As the old saying goes, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.

Pondering what ifs makes for good material for sports talk shows and off-season articles in football blogs but right now all we can deal with is what actually happened in Sunday’s loss. The Black and Gold simply did not do enough to win. They were given chance after chance to seize the game from a frankly unimpressive Broncos team yet never quite did so. And they paid for it in the end.

What’s amazing is all season we saw this team in terms of being an elite high-powered offense that has to score enough points to off-set a mediocre defense. In the playoffs, that script totally flipped. For the second week in a row, Keith Butler‘s crew did a magnificent job. Unfortunately, all people will remember is they allowed a 13 play 65 yard go ahead touchdown drive when it mattered most.

Prior to that, the much maligned defense basically stymied the Broncos for 3+ quarters. Denver’s entire offensive output was four measly field goals. Three of the field goals came on drives where the Broncos started their drive at midfield or better. Noodle-armed Peyton Manning was held in check so thoroughly the Mile High faithful were openly booing their offense after every three and out.

Could they have done more? Sure. William Gay had a shot at a killer interception on the go-ahead drive but it was broken up by Demaryius Thomas. Brandon Boykin tried to undercut a route and was a split second late leading to a big third down conversion. Will Allen couldn’t get a fingertip on Manning when he turtled up like a frightened baby on a corner blitz but scrambled back up to complete a huge 35 yard pass when he realized he was never touched.

If the defense makes one of those plays, we’re making plans for Foxboro. At the same time, only the most jaded yinzer would say they didn’t play well enough to win. James Harrison, in what may be his final game in the Black and Gold, was an absolute beast. Stephon Tuitt was an immoveable object on the line. And Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones finally gave us a glimpse of the fast aggressive linebacking corps we hoped for after they were each taken in the first round.

If the team was let down, it was once again by a sputtering offense. People will make excuses about injuries but the facts are Ben Roethlisberger and company haven’t played well going back to their pathetic loss to the Ravens in Week 16. All season Mike Tomlin has bemoaned not finishing drives. The past two games wouldn’t have been close if the offense had finished even a couple more drives instead of settling for Chris Boswell field goals. Yesterday, they repeatedly threatened to break the game open only to stall out after a sack, penalty, or combination of the two.

Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and rookie Sammie Coates all had their moments. They also dropped their share of passes. They made some plays but should’ve made more. Fitzgerald Toussaint actually ran the ball well so it’s unfortunate he’ll live in infamy alongside Rashard Mendenhall when it comes to memorable playoff fumbles. Big Ben showed little ill-effects from his shoulder injury. If anything, his decision making was more suspect than his ability to throw a deep ball.

The Steelers have preached “next man up” only for the next man to perform remarkably well. Yesterday, they finally found a position they couldn’t fill – punt returner. Wheaton was an absolute nightmare on punts, routinely costing the team field position although it could’ve been far worse. Punter Jordan Berry also had a horrific game, shanking several punts from his end zone. Toussaint’s turnover may have been the only official miscue but the adventures in special teams surely gifted the sputtering Broncos two possibly even three field goals. If Kevin Colbert addresses one thing this off-season, he better find a return man.

I said in my game preview that turnovers would be the deciding factor. Obviously that’s a bit of a “well, duh!” statement but as the game wore on it became apparent one touchdown and one turnover was going to make all the difference. First team to score late/first team to commit a turnover was going to win. The Steelers looked to be driving for that decisive score when Toussaint fumbled. It’s hard to place the weight of the entire game on that play given all the chances missed before and after but there’s no doubt it was the turning point.

Of course, it never should’ve came down to that. The Steelers played a Broncos team which gave them every opportunity to win. To paraphrase a famous quote from Star Wars, the more the Steelers tightened their grip, the more the game slipped through their fingers. And so the season ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.

And a lot of people pondering the worst question of them all: what might have been.