So this is how the season ends for the Steelers. Not with a bang but a whimper.
Making the playoffs with a chance to defend their Super Bowl title is history. Even a chronic optimist has to be thinking the worst.
How did Pittsburgh respond?
With its most embarrassing game of the season, that's how. The defending champs, a veteran club with quality talent all over the roster, played with no emotion, no fire, and no heart.
A season with so much promise and expectations has become a disaster of mammoth proportions.
The low point in this five-game losing streak came last night.
Losing to the Browns with the season on the line was bad enough. Losing and managing a measly six points in the process is even worse.
The Steelers were beaten on both sides of the ball by a team they had defeated 12 straight times. The Browns out-gained the Steelers, 255-212, and they sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger eight times.
Poor tackling, horrid pass protection, questionable play-calling, and more special teams blunders were on display in Cleveland.
I don't know about you, but I don't call that unleashing hell. Unless you happen to be a Browns fan.
Pittsburgh is now 6-7 and its five-game losing skid tied the 1987 Giants for the longest losing streak by a defending Super Bowl champion. Even worse, the Steelers are 1-4 in the division and 4-6 in conference.
The only way the Steelers make the playoffs now is if every player on every team ahead of them in the standings contracts swine flu. Not good odds, if you ask me.
Even the emotional leader of the team realizes the dream of a repeat is just that, a dream, a shadow, a puff of smoke.
"Playoffs are pretty much over with. Right now, we are just playing with pride," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "There is going to be a lot of gut checks for a lot of these guys."
And for the coaching staff as well.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin promised changes to the starting lineup. None materialized. Even with Cleveland dominating the line of scrimmage, Tomlin refused to make any changes when changes were needed, especially on the offensive line.
The head coach is also responsible for motivating his players and keeping them up and focused on the task before them.
The Steelers last night looked down, unmotivated and unfocused. There was zero sense of urgency. It was like they had already given up on the season.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has taken a decades-old Steelers tradition of power football and turned it on its head. The results have not been to the liking of the Steeler Nation.
Take last night, for instance.
At game time, you had blustery weather conditions with the temp at 14 degrees. The wind chill made it feel like minus-12. The last thing you want to do is pass a lot in that situation, especially when facing the wind.
What did Arians do?
You guessed right. He threw it, and threw it, and threw it some more.
Roethlisberger launched 32 passes, despite the sacks, while Rashard Mendenhall touched the rock only 16 times for 53 yards against the 29th-ranked run defense in the league.
What was Arians thinking?
It's hard to believe this was the same team that was 6-2 only five weeks ago.
The offense couldn't score against the worst defense in the NFL. The special teams gave up another big return, and the defense, despite giving up only 13 points, couldn't force a turnover when they needed one or make a tackle when it had to.
Now all that's left for Pittsburgh to do is finish out the schedule and get ready for a very long offseason.
The 2009 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers can be summed up in the final stanza of the T.S. Eliot poem, "The Hollow Men."
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