Sudden death: The Steelers' season ends with a whimper

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In a winter sports landscape already bleak with the lack of Penguins, Pittsburghers now have to endure the worst kind of end to a Steelers season -- one without a trip to the playoffs.

With one game against Cleveland still left, any hopes for a Steelers post-season were officially extinguished last Sunday when another division rival, the Cincinnati Bengals, snatched a sloppy win off the cold turf at Heinz Field.

After intercepting Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with 14 seconds left, the Bengals kicked a 43-yard field goal to give them a 13-10 win and a ticket to the AFC wild card match. Such last-minute game-changers were the kind we used to expect from the Steelers; now Pittsburgh fans are getting used to their team being outrun, out thrown and outscored.

So the Steelers limped into the locker room with a record of 7-8 and, as their final act next Sunday, they have the chance to salvage only a .500 season. It's the kind of hope we have typically reserved for the Pirates.

Mr. Roethlisberger was stoic and apologetic after the game for his poor play. Although his miscues have been pivotal during his return after missing three games due to injury, there are 11 men on the field and it's hard to say that each one of them has performed like a champion.

It will be a long off-season, with plenty of time for the owners and coaches to chew over what went wrong. But how to avoid the same dispirited end next year must be Pittsburgh's goal as the snows of January fall and the football faithful watch the playoffs unfold -- without the Steelers.

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