The Steelers vacated Heinz Field for the North Side gloom Sunday not knowing whether they would play their next football game within eight days or within 8½ months, but they knew this:
They had won the coveted Water Street Trophy.
Never heard of it?
That might have something to do with the fact that I just made it up, but it's no small thing.
With their eighth win of season, a routine, 20-7 arm-twisting of the typically down-and-out Cleveland Browns, the Steelers guaranteed they would go home with more victories than the Pitt Panthers, with whom they share the same South Side football factory at 3400 South Water.
Pitt cranked up the heat a bit with a bedazzling [not really] Pizza Bowl victory against Bowling Green the day after Christmas, making it 7 wins apiece within the building.
But, after Sunday, the fictitious Water Street Trophy goes to the Black & Gold, even though they didn't bother to actually win a game until Oct. 13.
"We knew we had a good football team," said Ike Taylor, now 11 years into this Steelers life, "but, when you're consistent at being inconsistent, you get that 8-8 record."
It wasn't just that this Steelers team managed to sidestep the first losing season under Mike Tomlin, it further managed to put a signature on an 8-8 autumn that was so darned 8-8 it was a little spooky.
How 8-8 is this, for example?
Across 16 hair-raising episodes, the Steelers gained exactly 5,400 yards, their opponents exactly 5,395. The Steelers did that while scoring 379 points, their opponents 370. And if that doesn't stretch credulity, see if you can determine what the following people have in common, other than that they consistently cash checks signed by someone named Rooney: Troy Polamalu, Matt Spaeth, William Gay, Cortez Allen, Will Johnson, Derek Moye.
Eclectic group right there, no?
An eight-time Pro Bowl safety, a back-up tight end, two cornerbacks, a little-used fullback and a free-agent wideout who was de-activated on game day more often that he wasn't.
Well, all six scored the same number of touchdowns this year as decorated tight end Heath Miller. They all scored one, and that, too, is the definition of 8-8, if not 7-9 or 6-10 or worse.
"To start off 0-4 and just keep battling, it just shows the mettle of this team, and we're going to come to play every time," said defensive end Cam Heyward, whose accelerated development, as much as any Steelers development, defined the 8-4 mark the Steelers put together after going 0-for-September. "Today, it was about executing, because they know us, we know them. We made some big splash plays early and we were able to hold them off."
Holding off the Browns, of course, always comes with a spirited assist from ... the Browns.
Putting the finishing flourish on a sixth consecutive season of at least 11 losses, the Browns came to Heinz Field with essentially one chance to avoid losing here for a 10th consecutive time: Targeting wideout Josh Gordon as often as humanely possible, because Gordon had 237 yards against Dick LeBeau's defense Nov. 24 in Cleveland, and no one had managed even 100 since.
Gordon had six touchdowns of 37 yards or more this year, and his 19.6 yards per catch and 1,564 yards were the best such figures in the NFL.
So naturally, the Browns targeted him, in the first half, twice. He caught one ball for 11 yards. Long before that, Twitter was twitching wildly on the possibility that first-year Browns coach Rob Chudzinski would never be a second-year Browns coach. It was a wonder he wasn't fired at halftime. But he was fired after the game.
In the final stats, there were seven catches and 82 yards next to Gordon's name, but no catch went for more than 20 yards and he was never a factor as embattled quarterback Jason Campbell tried to pull the Browns out of a two-touchdown hole, likely oblivious to the fact that the Steelers are 151-2-1 with an 11-point lead over the past 22 years.
The Steelers defense demonstrably outshone an offense that saw Ben Roethlisberger's third interception in three games to go with a passer rating of 61.1, the quarterback's worst this season. LeBeau's platoon got great football from Taylor, Cortez Allen, Brett Keisel, rookie Jarvis Jones, and especially from Lawrence Timmons, who had eight tackles, a sack, another tackle in the backfield, a quarterback hurry, a pass defensed, and finally an interception to cap some day-long linebacking virtuosity.
"You all want to talk about we're old, but look at our starters," Taylor said. "We've got five guys over 30, but the rest are in their 20s, so y'all can start sayin' that. When you got a lot of young guys playin,' you're gonna have a lot of mistakes. But they finally came around in the second half of the season, and we all saw what we can do together as a team.
"We just wanted to finish strong."
Taylor wouldn't even suggest that the disappointment attending this season might be worse because the Steelers had somehow crawled within a Kansas City Chiefs victory at San Diego Sunday of turning up in the playoffs.
"No disappointment -- we made this situation," Taylor said. "Ain't nobody's fault but ours. We just gotta live with it."
Come to think of it, this might not be made all that much easier by the Water Street Trophy.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.