BALTIMORE -- The crying shame isn't that the Steelers battled hard to the bitter end and lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 22-20, Thursday night, a loss that likely is fatal to their playoff chances.
It would have been a crying shame if the Steelers had won on a night they made a season-full of mistakes. A 54-yard pass play and a 73-yard kickoff return by the Ravens. A botched field-goal try by the Steelers. And, most hurtful, too many dropped passes to count, including a killer drop by wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders at the end on a 2-point try that would have tied the score.
The Steelers hardly deserved to win.
"Not enough today. Unfortunately," coach Mike Tomlin said.
Now, with a 5-7 record and their three-game winning streak a distant memory, it's hard to imagine the Steelers recovering enough in the final four games to make the playoffs. The schedule is hardly brutal with home games against Miami and Cincinnati, a game at Green Bay and another home game against Cleveland. But, really, did they show you enough against the Ravens to make you think they can win out?
Yes, the near-comeback in the fourth quarter from 19-7 and 22-14 deficits was impressive. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led two long touchdown drives, completing 13 of 19 passes for 241 yards. When he threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery with 1:03 left, the Steelers were within that 2-point conversion of tying the game. But Sanders dropped the ball.
"I take this loss on me," Sanders said. "It's my fault."
It's hard to argue with the man. It wasn't just that drop. Earlier, he dropped a long pass on the sideline. He also dropped what would have been a touchdown pass if not for a face-mask penalty against tackle Mike Adams.
On the 2-point conversion, the Steelers called the same play that went for the Cotchery touchdown. This time, Roethlisberger threw it to Sanders in the left corner of the end zone even though Cotchery and wide receiver Antonio Brown -- the best receiver in the NFL this season -- later told him they had single coverage on the right side.
"It has to be a quick throw," Roethlisberger said. "I don't have time to read it from right to left. I have all the faith in the world in Emmanuel. He was lined up against a corner [Chykie Brown], who had just came into the game."
Later, Roethlisberger huddled with Sanders in a corner of the Steelers locker room.
"I just told him to keep his head up," Roethlisberger said. "He's made too many big plays for this team to get down on himself."
The final drive was especially impressive because so many of the Steelers' offensive players were injured. Linemen Fernando Velasco, Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams were out. So was running back Le'Veon Bell, who left with a concussion on the last drive after taking a brutal hit from the Ravens' Jimmy Smith and Courtney Upshaw. Guy Whimper had to play left tackle and Cody Wallace filled in at center.
"Those guys battled their tails off," Roethlisberger said. "I would have loved to get it to overtime to see how they would have done."
It didn't happen.
It wasn't just Sanders who had a rough night. The Steelers defense allowed five field goals and just one touchdown, but the touchdown set a bad tone early. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed a 54-yard pass to wide receiver Torrey Smith, setting up a 7-yard touchdown pass to Smith and a 7-0 lead. It was the 10th play of 50 yards or longer allowed by the defense this season. The Steelers have been outscored, 74-36, in the first quarter. It's hard to win when you are playing from behind so often.
The Steelers defense, which forced eight turnovers in the three-game winning streak, didn't get one against the Ravens. Of course, that wasn't EJ Manuel or Jason Campbell or Brandon Weeden at quarterback for Baltimore. It was Flacco, the $120.6 million man, the reigning Super Bowl MVP. He completed 24 of 35 passes for 251 yards and one touchdown.
The special-team breakdowns also hurt. Kicker Shaun Suisham started too early on a 50-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter and never got of the kick. The Ravens' Jacoby Jones had the 73-yard kickoff return in the third quarter, setting up a field goal.
The question now:
What are the Steelers going to do with the rest of the season?
"We've had to win out for a long time," Roethlisberger said. "We're just going to focus on the next one.
"We haven't quit to this point. I know one thing, I'm going to keep fighting my butt off. This is incredibly frustrating. We didn't do quite enough."
Too little, too late, you might say.
The same thing probably will be said at the end of the season.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.