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01-04-2010, 06:50 AM
Cook: Steelers' painful season fittingly ended
Monday, January 04, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10004/1025619-87.stm

MIAMI -- You can argue from now until next season that it's a crying shame the Steelers missed the playoffs despite playing some of their best ball down the stretch and winning their final three games. I look at it differently. I say it would have been an injustice of incredible magnitude if they had snuck in despite that hideous five-game losing streak that started at midseason.

Almost always, you get what you deserve in life.

Clearly, the Steelers don't deserve to play in this postseason because of their losses to three of the NFL's 98-pound weaklings -- the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns.

Really, that's obvious, isn't it?

"Ain't no one to blame but the Steelers," safety Ryan Clark said, getting it exactly right.

Disappointment was evident in every corner of the team's locker room yesterday after its 30-24 victory against the Miami Dolphins. The players quickly found out their playoff chances were all but doomed because the Houston Texans scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat the New England Patriots, 34-27. They were officially eliminated when the Baltimore Ravens wrapped up a 21-13 victory against the Raiders last night about the time the Steelers' flight was supposed to land in Pittsburgh.

The anguish was especially clear at wide receiver Hines Ward's locker. His pain had little to do with two hamstrings that ached so badly that he had a hard time pulling on his socks. It had much more to do with the awful reality that the Steelers weren't going to get the opportunity to make it three Super Bowls in five seasons.

"We just couldn't stop the bleeding and it came back to haunt us," Ward said of that five-game losing streak. "It's a shame. We've got a good team. We just didn't play good football in November ...

"I'm glad that we finished the year 3-0. But I'm not a moral-victory guy. Expectations are high around here. I don't know what to say except to apologize to our fans for not getting them to where we are supposed to be. To win the Super Bowl one year and not even get in the next, it's disappointing."

It's embarrassing, actually.

Certainly, injuries were a part of it. If I'm ranking the most indispensable Steelers, I put quarterback Ben Roethlisberger No. 1, safety Troy Polamalu No. 2 and defensive end Aaron Smith No. 3. The team had to play most of the season without Polamalu and Smith. They also lost an important division game at Baltimore Nov. 29 without the concussed Roethlisberger.

But there are no excuses for losing to the Chiefs, Raiders at home and Browns. The Chiefs had gone 4-30 in their previous 34 games before they beat the Steelers Nov. 22. The Raiders had scored 10 touchdowns in 11 games before they scored three in the fourth quarter to stun the Steelers Dec. 6. The Browns had the NFL's worst defense before they kept the Steelers' offense out of the end zone Dec. 10.

That's way beyond disappointing or even embarrassing.

That's why people who blame the Steelers' predicament on the Indianapolis Colts for tanking their game against the New York Jets last week or on the Patriots for blowing a late 27-13 lead yesterday are dead wrong.

When you start the season 14-0, as the Colts did, you earned the right to get ready for the playoffs any way you see fit. If that means sitting quarterback Peyton Manning and doing consequential damage to the Steelers' playoff hopes, so be it.

When you wrap up your division early, as the Patriots did, you don't have to play quarterback Tom Brady on the final drive against the Texans with the game still on the line. If Patriots coach Bill Belichick deserves criticism for anything, it's for keeping Brady in the game as long as he did or even for playing star wide receiver Wes Welker at all. Welker left early with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. I'm sure there are a lot of fans in New England who wish the Patriots had taken the game yesterday a lot less seriously.

Many people in Steelers Nation seem to forget that their favorite team, after wrapping up the division title in 2004, chose to sit Roethlisberger and running back Jerome Bettis in the final regular-season game at Buffalo. Those same people have some nerve for criticizing the Colts for sitting Manning.

"You know how that goes," Steelers tackle Willie Colon said, rolling his eyes. "When your team does it, it's good, smart football getting ready for the playoffs. When another team does it to you, they're cowards.

"No matter what, this all comes back to us. You keep asking yourself, 'How did we get in this position? If we had just won one of those five games ... ' "

If.

What is a shame is that the Steelers just might have been able to do some damage in the playoffs. Their defense, after looking as if it would blow one final fourth-quarter lead yesterday, stiffened at the end with interceptions by Clark and cornerback Ike Taylor. And their offense, which scored 30, 23 and 37 points in games since that fiasco in Cleveland ...

"Our offense is unbelievable right now," Clark said. "That would scare a lot of teams."

Added Colon, "I don't think any team would want to see us in the postseason. Everybody knows that."

Of course, no team has to face the Steelers in these playoffs.

The Steelers didn't qualify.

This painful season, that's just as it should be.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author
First published on January 4, 2010 at 12:00 am

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