PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh’s drama-filled season ended shockingly. A final, forgettable act.
No shot at the Patriots. No seventh Super Bowl trophy. No tomorrow.
And when it ended following a game no one expected, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and the rest of the dejected Steelers searched to find words to describe all that had gone wrong.
This was a struggle from the start.
“It wasn’t our day,” Roethlisberger said. “It wasn’t our year.”
Doomed by two first-half turnovers and a pair of head-scratching play calls on fourth down, Pittsburgh was stunned in the AFC playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who outslugged the Steelers 45-42 on Sunday to earn a trip to New England for next week’s conference championship.
Roethlisberger, who had wondered if he was washed up after throwing five interceptions in a loss to the Jags on Oct. 9, set a franchise postseason record with five touchdown passes but it wasn’t enough as the Steelers (13-4) couldn’t stop a Jacksonville offense that was supposedly weak.
“It’s disheartening,” said Brown, who caught two TD passes and played at his All-Pro level while battling a calf injury. “I thought we had the right guys. As a player, you live for these moments. Now we start all over.”
Not the plan: As Roethlisberger dressed at one end of Pittsburgh’s locker room, a few of his teammates sat at their stalls in disbelief.
This wasn’t the plan.
Cam Heyward handled wave after wave of questions about the team’s numerous defensive lapses. Bell downplayed that his messy contract situation created an unnecessary distraction in the days leading up to the game, and cornerback Artie Burns sat in his uniform and stared blankly at the floor.
The Steelers never recovered from a 21-0 first-half deficit and are now left to wonder what might have been. Twice they got within seven in the second half only to give up back-breaking plays to the Jaguars, who rushed for 168 yards and seemed to come up with a big play whenever they needed one.
“It’s crazy that we couldn’t get off the field,” Heyward said. “They played better than us — simple as that.”
Slow start: The Jaguars had the Steelers out of step early on. After rookie Leonard Fournette’s second TD, the score set up by linebacker Myles Jack’s interception of Roethlisberger, Jacksonville was up 14-0 and Pittsburgh’s rowdy fans were using their Terrible Towels to muffle their disgust.
The Steelers seemed to panic when coach Mike Tomlin elected to go on fourth-and-inches and then inexplicably ran a sweep to Bell that got snuffed. Later, Roethlisberger threw an incompletion on fourth down when a simple sneak might have moved the chains.
“We didn’t execute well enough and they did,” Tomlin said when asked about his decisions.
Roethlisberger went 37 of 58 for 469 yards and the five TDs, the last coming with 1 second left.
It was a sobering moment for the star quarterback who has orchestrated so many comeback wins during a 14-year career. Roethlisberger found some solace in his final throw.
“Nobody quit and that speaks volumes about this team,” he said.
Roethlisberger also dismissed any talk the Steelers were looking past the Jaguars and a rematch with the Patriots, who handed Pittsburgh its only loss in the last 11 games.
“We were dialed in,” he said. “I know I wasn’t looking forward.”
Bell sidesteps contract talk: Bell finished with 155 total yards and afterward sidestepped much talk about his contract. He was franchise tagged by the team for $12 million this season and has made it clear he wants more money.
“I wasn’t thinking about it,” he said. “All I was thinking about was getting to the Super Bowl.”
As for his own future, Roethlisberger indicated that he intends to return next season. The 35-year-old has hinted at retirement, but that seemed far from his mind as he swallowed a loss few saw coming.
“I don’t know what’s going on with people’s contracts,” he said. “I don’t know how many years guys have left. I know the guys up front are all under contract and that’s a good feeling. I definitely have a desire to play football. I love this game. I love these guys. It’s tough. It stings.
“You hate losing at home. I feel bad because I feel like I let the fans down and my teammates down. I feel like I let a lot of people down and I’ll take it all myself. I look forward to next year with those guys.”