The Pittsburgh Steelers went into Miami and did what they needed to do Sunday afternoon: overcoming lackluster play by their defense, the Steelers eeked out a six-point win against the Dolphins in their quest to wrap up a postseason berth and defend their Super Bowl title.
Unfortunately it wasn't enough; the help they needed didn't pan out, and Pittsburgh found itself in the unenviable position of having to watch the Lombardi Trophy go to someone else without getting an opportunity to claim it themselves.
Pittsburgh's best shot was a win over Miami plus losses by Houston and the Jets. Before they even finished their own game, it was apparent that the best-case scenario wasn't an option: the Texans were able to prevail over the somewhat substandard performance of Bill Belichump's Patriots, and Pittsburgh's position became that much more perilous.
Needing losses by Denver, Baltimore, and the Jets, the Steelers hopes were dashed when the Ravens prevailed 21-13 over the Oakland Raiders, a team that defeated Pittsburgh earlier in the year.
Conspiracy theorists and hotheads will look to the Indianapolis and New England games and claim that these teams laid down purposely to keep the Steelers out of the playoffs.
Other will blame the NFL for flexing the Cincinnati game to Sunday night and changing the dynamic of the matchups to give a New York team the best possible shot at making the postseason (since the Giants blew their shot last week, the Jets got the nod).
Still others will blame the refs for bad calls in the New England game that gave Houston the win.
And regardless of whether the arguments are valid, they truly don't admit to a hill of beans.
The truth of the matter is, Pittsburgh has no one to blame but themselves.
Are you listening, LaMarr Woodley? It is PITTSBURGH'S fault that they aren't in the playoffs.
Consider this: Pittsburgh opened the season 6-2, and looked to be well on their way to making a run at their third Super Bowl appearance in five years. They then embarked on a five-game losing streak that is one of the most inexplicable in recent memory.
Two of the losses, while hard to swallow, at least are somewhat justifiable: Pittsburgh lost to Cincinnati, who admittedly was playing some inspired ball—the Bengals had earned the nickname "Cardiac Cats" for late-game heroics all season, and the Steelers game was no exception— and Baltimore, who always play Pittsburgh hard regardless of the stakes.
But those two losses aren't the issue. It's the other three that cast doubt on the Steelers tenacity.
After losing to the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh fell to Kansas City. A nearly 400-yard effort by Ben Roethlisberger made no difference; the Steelers defense surrendered a 10-point lead at the half, getting outscored 17-7 and allowing the Chiefs to force overtime. Beleaguered cornerback William Gay gave up a 62-yard bomb that put the Chiefs in field goal range, and that was that.
Following the loss a week later to the Baltimore Ravens, Coach Mike Tomlin implied in a press conference that the silliness was over; the Steelers were addressing their issues and would shortly "unleash hell" in December to finish the season.
They unleashed hell, alright, they just forgot to harness it and use it for themselves.
The next week Pittsburgh faced of with the Oakland Raiders, a rival of the Steelers during Pittsburgh's previous dynasty in the '70's. Oakland, with their league-worst offense, was able to rally for 21—yes, you read that right, 21—points in the first quarter to beat the Steelers at Heinz Field, a place that until this year was a hard stadium to visit and win.
The very next week, Pittsburgh squared off against inter-divisional rival Cleveland in a game they were sure to win. The Browns had managed just two wins while dropping 11 this season. No way were the Steelers going to drop this one.
Except they did. Five games, five losses, and suddenly the Steelers were 6-7 and in danger of being eliminated from playoff contention.
If Pittsburgh had taken care of business in just one of those five games, they would be sitting as the fifth seed in the playoffs. Worse yet, three of the losses came against teams that ended the season with a combined record of 14-32. Heads-up play against any of those teams and the Steelers are 10-6.
As it is now, the only trophy Pittsburgh gets to hoist this year is one they already have in their trophy case.
It's not Woodley's fault for spouting off at the mouth, as much as conspiracy theorists wold like to believe. Although it is emotionally satisfying to have a reason to impugn the reputation and ethics of Bill Belichickie, New England has no culpability in the Steelers demise.
The NFL did not execute some dastardly plan to make Pittsbugh's chances slimmer than they already were, even though it is no secret that a New York-area team in the playoffs means big money for the league.
It can't even be blamed on the absence of Troy Polamalu; he went down early enough in the season for the defensive backfield to adjust to his not being on the field (although Tyrone Carter was most assuredly exposed for the mediocre safety that he is, and William Gay, Ike Taylor, and Deshea Townsend should be smacked for continuing to expect Carter to provide help over the top).
No, the only people who hold any blame for the Steelers absence from the postseason are the guys who strapped up and stepped between the white lines. When you get right down to it, that's where the meat of the matter is: 51 players played 16 games. They and they alone held the key to their postseason opportunities.
When all is said and done, all 51 of them didn't execute. The price that must be paid for that is an early off-season.