The inexplicable but plainly obvious decline of the Steelers from Super Bowl contender in October and November to massive underachiever in December and January played out as expected last night, but not without continuing disappointment in a first-round playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Just as they did last month, the Jaguars came into Heinz Field and won, this time 31-29, in a throbbing finish with the Steelers grabbing the lead late in the game only to lose once again on a final drive by the opposition.
The defeat was not without its positives. The Steelers were all but beaten early in the second half, down, 28-10, and undone by three Ben Roethlisberger interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and special teams inadequacies. But three fourth-quarter touchdowns gave them the lead. The rally had the crowd of 63,629 whipped into a frenzy -- only to be disappointed again.
The defense -- the one-time pride of the franchise -- wasn't able to stop the opposition when it absolutely had to. It was the same old story and a major reason why this season will long be remembered as disappointing.
The record book will say the Steelers finished 10-6 and advanced to the playoffs. In most seasons this would be considered a success, and the long lens of history likely will look on it as such. But those who watched it up close as it happened will know better. They will know this was as soft a 10-6 record as might be found in the recent annals of the NFL. It was a record achieved more by a schedule full of weak and mediocre opponents than any special ability on the Steelers' part. They beat only two teams with winning records, Seattle and Cleveland. The Seattle win, 21-0, Oct. 7, was, in retrospect, the high point of the season.
In truth, the opportunity was there for a hugely successful year. But these Steelers couldn't beat bad teams. They were defeated by three teams with losing records, Denver, the New York Jets and Baltimore. They were only able to beat the hapless Miami Dolphins, 3-0. In a showdown match with New England in early December, which some thought they might win, the Steelers were embarrassed, 34-13. But what was truly the low point for this team was that it got worse instead of better as the season progressed. How else can the following be explained:
• In the first 12 games, the Steelers allowed 14 offensive touchdowns; in their final five, they allowed 16.
• In their first 12 games, they allowed the opposition to score more than 21 points only twice; in the final five, the opposition scored more than 21 points every time.
• In the first 12 games, they allowed an average of 13 points; in the final five, they allowed an average of 28 points.
The defense, which allowed victory to slip away by allowing late touchdown drives in losses to Denver, the Jets and the first Jacksonville game, came up small again last night. Sparked by Roethlisberger, who played as well in the second half as he did poorly in the first, the offense scored three touchdowns in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter to take a 29-28 lead.
With six minutes remaining, could the defense hold? No, it could not.
The Jaguars began their final possession on their 49 with 2:38 remaining. There was plenty of time. It was only a question of which side would prevail: The Jaguars' offense or the Steelers' defense. One play defined the drive, the game and the season.
On fourth-and-2 from the Steelers' 43, quarterback David Garrard, in shotgun formation, took the snap from center, delayed a count or two and bolted up the middle. About 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage -- still out of field-goal range -- Garrard deftly juked safety Tyrone Carter, who look like he had Garrard lined up for a tackle, and ran to the 11. The game was as well as over and, four plays later, Josh Scobee kicked the winning 25-yard field goal.
The final drive was particularly disheartening because the defense had played better for most of the game than it had for some time. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew who savaged the defense for a combined 216 yards last month, were held in check. Taylor gained 48 yards on 16 carries, Jones-Drew 29 on eight. Nor did Garrard do significant damage, completing only 9 of 21 passes and throwing two interceptions.
But, on a night when it played better than expected, the defense still wasn't good enough. And neither were the Steelers.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .