In some ways, getting to 12-4 and claiming a spot in the playoffs is a minor miracle for a Pittsburgh Steelers team that has undergone so much in 2011. Very few Super Bowl-losing teams manage to scale the mountain and return to the playoffs the following season. The Steelers were one of the lucky teams that found a way to do it.
But it wasn't enough to go all the way. Sometimes, no matter how good you are, you can't reach the peak. The Steelers finally met their demise in Denver in a surprising 29-23 overtime loss to the Broncos and Tim Tebow.
Here's our final segment of "What Have We Learned" for the 2011 season with lessons we can apply to not only this afternoon's game but the entire season.
Isaac Redman had a huge stage with which to state why he should be the starting running back in Pittsburgh. I would say that Redman made quite the convincing case.
Well played, Redman.
Redman, in his first career playoff start and the first really significant action he's seen, earned a lot of respect from everyone with a 17-carry, 121-yard performance against a staunch Broncos defense.
Redman is an entirely different back from Rashard Mendenhall. Instead of the spinning, cutting style employed by the latter, Redman is a straight-ahead runner who only spins when he's getting hit in the open field. He hits the hole fast and decisively and uses that bullish burst to create openings where none exist.
He certainly showed he can start in the NFL. On a team that will likely be a passing squad until Ben Roethlisberger hangs up his cleats, Redman can certainly be the guy and might be a better complement to the team's passing attack than Mendenhall, who's slow-to-develop play style doesn't lend itself to what the team likes to do and is good at.
We'll have to keep an eye on this situation, but Mendenhall has some serious competition once he's healthy.
The NFL's top pass defense looked like the league's worst on Sunday. That's about the only thing that you can say.
Ike Taylor, who last week I said was the team's biggest Pro Bowl snub, looked like the worst corner in the league. It was a complete turnaround from Taylor's season, and it came inexplicably against one of the worst passing attacks in the NFL.
But Taylor, who was burned continuously by DeMaryius Thomas on deep passes, wasn't alone. The entire secondary played poorly against the pass. William Gay never turned around on an Eddie Royal touchdown catch in the second quarter. The safeties consistently got caught out of position.
So when an entire unit fails (and allowing Tim Tebow to throw for 316 yards is massively failing regardless of whether you think Tebow is a good quarterback), who do you look to for blame?
Dick LeBeau. Carnell Lake. The entire defensive coaching staff and even Mike Tomlin.
They came in with the plan that they'd load the box and make Tebow beat them with his arm and not his legs. They effectively shut down the running game for the most part, although Tebow escaped for some damaging runs.
But the Steelers failed to adjust when Tebow started carving up their pass defense in the second quarter. By the time they started to slow things down, the best they could do was tie the game. And of course, they utterly fell apart on the only overtime play, once again allowing Thomas to get behind them.
Emotion and motivation are powerful factors when two teams that seem mismatched on paper meet up. Those factors played a major role in this game.
Whether you want to admit it, Mike Tomlin swung and missed big.
I'm not sure what to say happened. Maybe he and everyone in Pittsburgh knew that they weren't going to get very far without a healthy quarterback and with so many players at far below 100 percent. Tomlin has always done a good job at getting a backup to step up and play when needed. He did it again on Sunday.
But he didn't get his team pumped. He didn't use the most obvious motivation available: the chance to end Tebowmania for at least 2011.
The Steelers came out strong early and got a 6-0 lead, but they didn't seem motivated. There was no fire. It was workmanlike execution. There were no big plays early. There was no intensity.
Switch to the other sideline. Tim Tebow was out of control emotionally. He was pumping his teammates at every opportunity and was clearly motivated to prove himself.
Now look at the final score. Denver won. They won the game well before Tebow arced his overtime throw to DeMaryius Thomas. The Broncos won it when they took the field ready to prove doubters and naysayers wrong, and Pittsburgh took the field hoping to survive a team that I'm not entirely sure they took seriously.
The Steelers were finally unable to overcome all of the injuries that beset them in 2011. All of it caught up with them today.
Every team has that tipping point where it simply can't take any more of a pounding. It is similar to a ship that is damaged. It can only take on so much water before it sinks.
When they left the field today, they'd lost Aaron Smith, Rashard Mendenhall, Maurkice Pouncey, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, Max Starks, Ben Roethlisberger, James Farrior, Daniel Sepulveda, Emmanuel Sanders, Doug Legursky, Troy Polamalu, Marcus Gilbert and Willie Colon for some portion of some game this season. That's not even a complete list; it's just the marquee names on the roster.
Add in guys like Ramon Foster, Chris Kemoeatu, Chris Carter, Jason Worilds, Hines Ward, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Mewelde Moore, Jonathan Dwyer, Keenan Lewis and Chris Hoke, and you've got quite the list of players who've missed some period of time.
To get to 12-4 and make the playoffs was quite the feat of coaching and roster construction. Getting further would have been a miracle.
In Denver, the Steelers simply looked like a ship that had taken every last bit of punishment that it could and was finally ready to roll over and sink.
Teams that create turnovers more often than committing them win games. Teams that do the opposite get lucky sometimes, but can't get lucky every time.
The Steelers had probably their worst season in years when it came to the turnover department. They turned the ball over more often than they created anything on defense. It took nearly half of the season to get a multi-turnover game.
It was all over the place on Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger turned the ball over trying to protect himself when he threw an interception while under pressure. Healthy, that play probably doesn't happen. Later, he didn't give the ball to Denver, but totally obliterated a chance to win the game in regulation when he dropped the ball on the last drive while trying to pass.
The Steelers nearly committed at least three turnovers that luckily didn't happen. They only forced one, and that was the closest they ever came.
In 2012, they need to flip the script or it will once again be hard to put away an opponent. In 2011, too often they couldn't get the big play they needed, but were ready to give their opponents every opportunity to win games late.
On Sunday, they did it again on their last drive. When Denver got the ball back, they did what playoff teams do: They capitalized.