PITTSBURGH — The win they needed but at times didn’t act like they particularly wanted finally secured, the Pittsburgh Steelers lingered on the Heinz Field turf after a sluggish 16-13 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday and turned their eyes to the massive videoboard in the south end zone.
A season filled with promise six weeks ago before things came undone boiled down to something entirely out of Pittsburgh’s control: whether Cleveland could pull off a stunning rally in Baltimore. As a decidedly out-of-place chant of “Let’s Go Browns” reverberated and Cleveland marched into Ravens’ territory, a third straight AFC North for the Steelers seemed possible.
Then Cleveland rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield threw a late pick. The Ravens held on. Optimism evaporated. Replaced by a mix of harsh reality and a hint of wistfulness.
The Steelers (9-6-1) firmly believe they would be a tough out in the playoffs. Barring the slim hope of a tie between Indianapolis and Tennessee on Sunday night, Pittsburgh won’t get the chance. The team that appeared assured of a fifth consecutive playoff berth following a six-game midseason winning streak instead will miss the postseason for the first time since 2013.
“It just sucks,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said. “How hard we work, how much effort we put in. To go from 7-2-1 to where we are now is heartbreaking.”
And avoidable. Yet four losses in five games – all of which the Steelers led at some point in the second half – forced them to enter Week 17 needing to beat the injury ravaged Bengals and a hope surging Cleveland could upset the Ravens on the road.
“It’s just tough,” said Pittsburgh running back James Conner, who ran for 64 yards in his return to the lineup after missing three games with a sprained left ankle. “We’re relying on somebody else to advance.”
The team that stressed it wouldn’t spend all afternoon scoreboard watching certainly looked distracted as Cincinnati took a 10-3 halftime lead. Pittsburgh eventually rallied behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger – who threw for 287 yards and a touchdown despite missing injured star receiver Antonio Brown to finish with a career-best and NFL-high 5,129 yards passing – and new kicker Matt McCrane booted three field goals, the last a 35-yarder with 1:56 to go that put the Steelers ahead to stay.
Pittsburgh held on when Cincinnati backup quarterback Jeff Driskel’s fourth-down pass intended for Josh Malone fell incomplete with 1:08 to go. Roethlisberger then took a pair of knees to run out the clock, setting the stage for the bizarre sight of the Steelers and thousands of black-and-gold clad fans cheering on the Browns.
For a few anxious minutes, the dominoes appeared to be falling into place. When they didn’t, Pittsburgh didn’t place blame on Cleveland but countless missed opportunities.
“It just makes me mad that as a leader of this group, we put ourselves in this situation like this, looking for others to do our job,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “Cleveland played a heck of a game … it’s frustrating and as a leader of this group it’s just unacceptable.”
Roethlisberger vowed to return for a 16th season. He turns 37 in March and doesn’t think Pittsburgh’s window is closing as long as the offensive line in front of him remains intact.
“I still feel good,” he said. “We keep that line together, that’ll give us a good fighting chance.”
MARVIN’S MURKY FUTURE
Joe Mixon rushed for 105 yards for the Bengals but Cincinnati (6-10) – which entered Sunday with 18 players on injured reserve, including quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green– lost for the seventh time in eight games and head into another offseason unsure about the future of longtime head coach Marvin Lewis.
Cincinnati’s season turned at home against the Steelers back in October, when the Bengals let Pittsburgh go down the field in the final minute to pull out a 28-21 victory on Antonio Brown’s 31-yard catch and run with 10 seconds to play. An avalanche of injuries and losses followed. Lewis headed to the locker room surrounded by cameras, which he found “ridiculous” after his beat-up squad took the Steelers basically to the wire.
“I think it’s sad (my status) is the only thing they can point to,” Lewis said. “This isn’t about me. This is about this football team and what they do. To make this about one person. It’s not about one person. This is my job. That’s it.”
Bengals: WR Cody Core left late in the first quarter with a left elbow injury. Core was hurt while diving for a pass deep down the left sideline. … LT Cordy Glenn injured his left ankle after getting rolled up on during a scrum following fumble by Driskel in the third quarter. Safety Brandon Wilson left in the second half with a chest injury and tight end Matt Lengel exited with a left knee issue.
Steelers: Brown missed his first game of the season while dealing with a knee injury. Pittsburgh also sat starting safety Sean Davis (quadriceps) and inside linebacker Vince Williams (toe).
Bengals: Owner Mike Brown will meet with Lewis to decide whether a 17th season is in the offing for the winning coach in franchise history.
Steelers: While head coach Mike Tomlin is on firm ground, changes to the coaching staff could be made. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s unit struggled to create turnovers and the special teams were a mess under coordinator Danny Smith.