Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown takes a look behind him as he heads to the end zone, scoring his second touchdown of the game against the Bengals.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
More than satisfying, the Steelers' 30-20 victory against AFC North Division-leading Cincinnati could have prompted some anger in the locker room in the wee hours Monday morning.
Their victory Sunday night came against a team on the brink of moving into the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC, but meant little to the Steelers' playoff chances. It did, however, show how many previous opportunities they have thrown away.
Here are three quick ones from their two most recent losses:
Mike Tomlin provides Bengals recap, injury update
Mike Tomlin recapped the Steelers' performance against Cincinnati before talking briefly about injuries and the next opponent, the Green Bay Packers. The PG's Ed Bouchette puts it all in context. (Video by Andrew Rush; 12/17/2013)
* Had Shaun Suisham done in Baltimore what he did Sunday night when he was perfect on three field goals and not left too early and botched a field goal, the Steelers might have won that game.
* Had Emmanuel Sanders, whose second effort on third down Sunday to get the extra yards for a first down helped stem a Bengals comeback try, not dropped a 2-point conversion, they might have beaten the Ravens.
* Had Antonio Brown, who scored two touchdowns Sunday, not inexplicably stepped out of bounds against Miami, the Steelers would have won that game.
Unlike the 11 plays of more than 50 yards against them, the little things are what did in the Steelers' 2013 season. Small, unexplainable things, like the fumbled handoff near the goal line by Isaac Redman early in their opening loss against Tennessee. A dropped pass in Cincinnati by tight end David Paulson, who has since fallen to fourth string. And there's no sense going over how they lost against Oakland and Minnesota.
The Steelers beat some of their toughest and best opponents -- Detroit, the New York Jets and Cincinnati -- and lost to some of their worst, including by three points in Oakland. They squandered a season for the second year in a row.
"We have a good team, we have a good nucleus of guys in this locker room," Sanders said. "This season boils down to us not putting it together in all three phases."
Injuries hit them early and often again, especially on offense, but that does not explain how they managed to fumble away games both early and late.
"You think back to Tennessee and Oakland," defensive captain Ryan Clark said, "when things like this happened, just wishing you had an opportunity to execute against teams that physically you were better than, that you had better players than.
"Some of these games are a toss-up. You go in some of them and you think, 'If we play well, we can win; if we don't, we can lose.' But games you feel like on paper you're the better team, you need to execute and win those games. You get two of those games back, you're in the hunt and have an opportunity to make the playoffs."
They get two back, they would be 8-6 and in control to make the playoffs and perhaps challenge Cincinnati for the division title.
Guard Ramon Foster said everyone saw the real Steelers Sunday night.
"Absolutely. We can't go in the past, but that's what we're made of right there, we just needed more of it."
It's a what-if game that former coach Bill Cowher made famous for eschewing and that no coach wants to play. Nor do some veteran players.
"Nah, there are no woulda couldas in this ballgame," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "It's the humblest sport. You have your ups and downs. This year, for the most part, we've just been consistent in being inconsistent and, when you do that, you have a record like what we have, regardless of what we feel we have in the locker room. When you play in the NFL, you have to be consistent."
The reality is the Steelers have underachieved for two consecutive seasons and won't make the playoffs because of it.
"For us, you can't look back because you don't get the opportunity to play again," Clark said in the moments after their victory against the Bengals. "But I think it shows this team still has fight, that we still want to play, that we're still excited about football, still excited about being here. We'll just keep playing."
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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