Harrison, Keisel, and Polamalu all fought off injuries and played inspired football on Sunday.
"If you can't accept losing, you can't win."
Those words were once uttered by none other than Vince Lombardi, the biggest winner in NFL history. Lombardi won five NFL championships that included the first two Super Bowl trophies that now bear his name. That quote rings true to so many disappointed NFL cities today after watching their teams' playoff hopes disappear in recent weeks, but the teams it might be best linked to are the Bengals and the Steelers.
Save for two Super Bowl runs in the '80s and a few playoff berths here and there, Cincinnati had embraced losing like George Costanza embraced Festivus. Maybe they finally got tired of being Pittsburgh's little brother. Maybe Andy Dalton got tired of skeptics saying he couldn't win a big game. Maybe Dalton, receiver A.J. Green and defensive linemen Geno Atkins are infusing a new, winning attitude to the Bengals. Maybe Marvin Lewis isn't a bad coach after all.
Maybe it was all of the above that led to Cincinnati's breakthrough against a Steelers team that had not lost to the Bengals since 2009. They accepted their losing past, kept it in the past and focused on winning.
No, the game was not pretty, and the Bengals must do better than a mere two field goals on offense. But it was against a Steelers defense playing possessed with emotional leader Troy Polamalu back in the lineup. Cincinnati played great when it had to Sunday, and for the second time in franchise history, the Bengals are back in the playoffs.
The same cannot be said for their cross-state rivals, the Steelers. Pittsburgh's loss to Cincinnati Sunday marked their first three-game losing streak since 2009, the last time they did not qualify for the postseason. Injuries at critical positions, inconsistent play on both sides of the ball and a lack of harmony with the offensive play-calling doomed Pittsburgh's hopes of a seventh Lombardi Trophy. They simply were never in sync.
Sunday's game was strikingly similar to the second-to-last game of the 1998 regular season between the Steelers and Bengals. After making the playoffs each of the previous six seasons, Pittsburgh was upset by the visiting Bengals and knocked out of postseason contention. You had the feeling it was the end of an era that day, and the same feeling was felt as Cincinnati danced off the Heinz Field carpet on Sunday.
Pittsburgh fans will be understandably upset and even angry after another disappointing loss. But maybe a loss like this will help younger Steelers fans realize how great the franchise they support is. Winning games in the NFL is a daunting task, let alone garnering division titles, conference and Super Bowl trophies. Maybe accepting losses like this will help the Steelers and their fans appreciate the good times even more.
This is only the third time since 2006 that Pittsburgh has failed to qualify for the playoffs, and with a win Sunday, Pittsburgh can stretch their non-losing season streak to 10 seasons. Need I remind everyone that the Browns are coming to town on December 30th, a team that was once Pittsburgh's most bitter rival? Don't tell anyone suiting up for the Black and Gold that Sunday's game doesn't matter.
On Sunday in Pittsburgh, fans will see a proud, veteran team together for maybe the final time. Like leaves falling off an aging tree, it seems that a key Steeler from the team's most recent Super Bowl championships departs at the end of each season as of late.
It was Jerome Bettis in 2006, Joey Porter in 2007, Alan Faneca in 2008, Santonio Holmes in 2010, Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith last year. Who will be moving on after this year?
Now is not the time to speculate. This is the time to stand up and cheer this team one more time. It wasn't the season anyone wanted, but it wasn't for a lack of effort. Anyone watching the Steelers defense Sunday knows that they were watching a very proud group putting their soul into trying to get their team back into the championship chase.
The TV cameras showed two-time Super Bowl champion linemen Casey Hampton in tears on the sidelines in the game's final seconds. I hope he knows how many Pittsburgh fans appreciate his and the team's efforts.
Everyone heading to Pittsburgh can show the team their appreciation Sunday. While fans would normally be busy speculating about the upcoming playoffs in recent years, this week is all about the Cleveland game.
We didn't know in years past how a season would end in Pittsburgh; we do this year. The 80th season in Steelers franchise history will end against the arch-rival Browns in Pittsburgh. The names of so many great players will be there, too—Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Hampton, Harrison, Clark, Keisel, Miller, Foote, etc. I hope the Steelers fans show up in full force as well, to say thank you to a team and an era that never stopped believing.