MIAMI -- The Steelers' season came to an end in a nutshell of a 30-24 victory against the Miami Dolphins yesterday, a big lead nearly vanishing in the fourth quarter along with their playoff hopes.
They received news as they walked off the field that Houston had beaten New England, and they got the final news they were eliminated later when their chartered flight landed back home, after Baltimore defeated Oakland.
The Houston win was enough to set a gloomy postgame tone despite a three-game winning streak.
"Yeah, we got some bad news right after the game," said linebacker James Farrior, explaining the generally down mood among his teammates.
"It's disappointing," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "The fact of not having an opportunity to get in the playoffs and control our own destiny to do it. But we finished strong and guys fought and at the end of the day, man, that's what it is. We didn't do enough to get it done."
They did just enough yesterday to withstand yet another defensive letdown in the fourth quarter to finish 9-7, losing playoff tiebreakers to others. In six of their seven losses, the Steelers blew fourth-quarter leads. It seemed beyond their capacity to do so yesterday when they went up, 27-10, in the fourth quarter on Jeff Reed's second of three field goals and three touchdown passes by Ben Roethlisberger.
The Dolphins had lost their first two quarterbacks, Chad Henne (eye) and rookie Pat White (concussion) when third-stringer Tyler Thigpen led Miami to two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. And, when former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter recovered a Roethlisberger fumble at the Steelers' 13 with 6:55 left, it looked like one final monumental collapse by the defense was in the works.
As Hampton said, "That's what we do."
Instead, safety Ryan Clark intercepted Thigpen at the 2 and the Steelers mounted a field-goal drive that put the Dolphins away.
"That game right there is kind of a snapshot of how it's been for us," coach Mike Tomlin said, "but how the guys fought is also a snapshot of how it's been for us."
That's how it has been at least over the past three games, all close victories.
"It wasn't typical because we won," Hampton said. "In the past we lost. So at the end of the day it's all about winning and we did that. I think we did a good job of pulling together and doing what needed to be done, something we hadn't been doing all year."
It took them until the final game for a cornerback to hang on to an interception and they got two, one by Deshea Townsend and another by Ike Taylor. Willie Parker, used little in what may be his final season with the Steelers, had 91 yards rushing on 12 carries to go with Rashard Mendenhall's 94 yards as the Steelers had their best rushing game of the season, gaining 202 yards.
Roethlisberger also had one of his best games. He completed 18 of 27 passes for 220 yards and threw touchdown passes of 5 yards to Santonio Holmes, 54 yards to Mike Wallace and 3 yards to Heath Miller. Holmes became a rarity in that not only did he catch a touchdown pass but he threw an interception after taking a lateral from Roethlisberger.
"If this was the last one, I'd rather we go out with a win than a loss," Roethlisberger said. "There's not much that we can do, but I'm proud of the way we fought today and we played hard."
Tomlin said he did not believe the three-game winning streak will carry over into next season, but he was gratified their five-game losing streak did not last longer.
"I said quite a few times over the last several weeks, this is our bed and we have to lay in it," Tomlin said. "But it was also us who made the best of a bad situation, too.
"I mean, let's be real, there are a lot of teams capable of going 6-10 or whatever faced with the circumstances this group of men was faced with. They knuckled down, they hung together, they did the best to their ability to fix it. We won our last three ballgames and gave ourselves a chance."
The Dolphins (7-9) scored on Lex Hilliard's 11-yard pass from Henne and Dan Carpenter's 25-yard field goal in the first half. They narrowed the 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit to three with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The first was a 16-yard run by wide receiver Brian Hartline. Thigpen then ended a three-play, 62-yard drive against the Steelers' defense by completing a 34-yard touchdown pass to Davone Bess.
"How about a little adversity, huh?" Tomlin asked.
Winning the game, though, meant little for Tomlin without a playoff berth.
"We have a singular goal every year and that's to be world champs. We understand that there are 32 teams going for it and there can only be one. I've been in this league nine years and seven times I've been disappointed. That's the reality of it. So if we're not that team, so be it."