Steelers' comeback falls short

Furious rally from 18 points back dispels some of gloom hanging over game, but all for naught


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It turned out to be one and done after all, but not with the air of inevitability that had hung over last night's playoff game like a rain cloud.

After the Steelers rallied furiously from an 18-point deficit to take a lead that sent their die-hard fans into a frenzy, Jacksonville's Josh Scobee kicked a 25-yard field goal with 37 seconds left to seal the verdict.

The 31-29 Jacksonville victory means the Jaguars will advance to the next round of the playoffs. Despite the comeback, the Steelers made a bit of dubious history as their 75th season ended with one of the most stirring playoff games in franchise history.

Coach Mike Tomlin had already joined Bill Cowher as the only coaches in franchise history to make the playoffs in their first year at the helm. But with the loss, Chuck Noll remains the only Steelers coach to win his first playoff game, which occurred 35 years ago and produced that Immaculate Reception.

No team had ever beaten the Steelers twice at home in the same season. Now a team nicknamed the Jags pulled off the feat twice in 20 days.

"We knew it was going to take the full 60 minutes," said Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard, who converted a crucial fourth-and-two during the winning field goal drive.

"I like the way we fought," said a dejected Mr. Tomlin. "But we fell short of our ultimate goal."

With just over six minutes remaining, the Steelers took the lead on a one-yard scoring run by Najeh Davenport following an Ike Taylor interception. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shook off three first-half interceptions to rally the injury-depleted Steelers, who had lost three of their previous four games and were in the uncharacteristic position of being underdogs at home in the post-season.

As a misty rain fell, last night's 8 o'clock start time was pushed back 13 minutes. But why not an unlucky omen to add to an atmosphere unlike anything experienced in the playoffs here before? Tickets were available at face value outside the stadium an hour before game time. Although a few empty seats were apparent at the start, the 63,629 in attendance were in full throat during the comeback. They were so spirited that the upper decks of the stadium shook and swayed.

The Steelers were forced to battle the breaks all night. In the second quarter, Hines Ward snagged a deflected pass for a 33-yard gain that put a charge in the crowd. But one play later, Jacksonville defensive back Rashen Mathis returned an interception and ran it back 63 yards for a touchdown.

A 33-yard reception credited to Santonio Holmes was overturned by replay in the final 91 seconds of the half. And a two-point conversion that would have brought the Steelers to within three points was nullified by a penalty in the fourth quarter.

Things actually started well for the Steelers. Pressed into double duty because of a substantial injury list, Davenport not only returned the opening kickoff 20 yards, he scored on a one-yard run 10 plays later to put the Steelers on top.

It took all of 24 seconds for the Jaguars to counter-punch, however. Maurice Jones-Drew shredded the kickoff coverage with a 96-yard run to the one yard line. On Jacksonville's first play from scrimmage, Fred Taylor found the end zone.

The interception return for a touchdown put the Jaguars ahead. And another costly interception added to the misery. Mathis was the culprit again, picking off a pass that eventually set up a 43-yard touchdown catch by Jones-Drew.

In the days leading up to the game, the Steelers tried to work their fans into a fever pitch. Mr. Tomlin hoped the Steeler Nation would be enough of a factor to help make some tackles, and Ward exhorted the home crowd with a personal plea.

"It's playoff time, and the loser goes home. We definitely don't want to lose at home," he said.

But uncharacteristically, there were empty seats at the mid-week taping of the Hines Ward TV show. And the season ends with a thud reminiscent of the punt that buried into the turf in the Miami game.

Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio had predicted that this would be a two chinstrap game, and both teams scored some welt-raising hits.

The Steelers seemed to have peaked with a 38-7 rout of the Ravens on the first Monday in November in front of the all-time team announced as part of the 75th season celebration. But even though the Steelers statistically had the best defense in the league, the losses mounted as opponents found ways to pick them apart.

Much of last night's game recalled the nightmare of the Dec. 16 loss to Jacksonville, the only loss at home during the regular season. In the snow and wind, the Florida team imposed its will, ran the ball, registered five sacks and made the big defensive stops.

"We're not some soft Southern team," offensive tackle Tony Pashos said after that game.

The Steelers knew their task was a formidable one. Out of action with injuries were Pro Bowl running back Willie Parker, right tackles Marvel Smith and Max Starks, defensive lineman Aaron Smith, special teams captain Clint Kriewaldt and return specialist Allen Rossum.

As usual, it was a sloppy track. After the turf was replaced in late November, rain or snow plagued every home game. The Penguins played a hockey game in a football stadium earlier in the week, but no Zamboni has yet been invented to smooth over the divots in the turf and leave a pristine surface behind.

The playoff loss led into today's 12th Day of Christmas, which according to song is the time for 12 drummers drumming and which traditionally marks the last day of the holiday season. Although it's a time for ornaments to be taken down, it's also supposed to be a time of merry-making.

Merry-making does not mix well with a playoff loss at home.

Solace for the bleak months ahead may be found in the musings of Anton Chekhov, who wrote about the cheerless, endless nature of the Russian winters.

Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories, he said. But he also noted, "If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prospering would not be so welcome."

Yeah, maybe. But what he did know about playoff football and last-minute losses?




Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com


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