The Steelers long-shot lottery ticket to make the playoffs came agonizingly close, but they came up one number short, their season ended abruptly by a few feet a continent away early Sunday night.
Needing an eight-game parlay entering the final two weeks of the season to squeeze in as the sixth seed from the AFC, the Steelers had 7 for 7 on their side, including their methodical, 20-7 victory against Cleveland Sunday at Heinz Field.
But a Kansas City upset in San Diego was too much to ask. The playoff-bound Chiefs, sitting most of their starters in a meaningless game to them, lost a 10-point second-half lead and the Chargers claimed the final AFC seat in the postseason with an overtime victory. Kansas City's Ryan Succop just missed a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left in regulation that would have won the game and put the Steelers in the playoffs.
Tomlin discusses 20-7 win over Browns
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin discusses his team's win over the Browns Sunday at Heinz Field. (Video by Matt Freed; 12/29/2013)
Steelers Report: Steelers 20, Browns 7
Steelers beat writers Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac talk about the Steelers' 20-7 win over the Cleveland Browns this afternoon at Heinz Field. (Video by Peter Diana; 12/29/2013)
Earlier in the day, they got the help they needed when Miami and Baltimore lost.
The disappointment will be stinging when the Steelers gather today on the South Side for the final time as a group in 2013, but they left their locker room Sunday with a better feeling about their 8-8 season that began with 0-4, their worst start in 45 years.
"Proud of the fight," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger declared. "Obviously, we started really tough, but there was no quit, like we said there wouldn't be."
After losing their first four games they went 8-4, 6-2 in the second half and believe they were on a roll.
"I'm really proud of what has happened," Roethlisberger said. "We started 0-4, and things aren't looking so good, and we have one of the worst records in football. Guys continued to fight and never quit. I will look at satisfaction as happy and proud of the fight and no one quitting."
Their locker room empty long before the Kansas City-San Diego result was in, Steelers players left with a good feeling about their play over the second half of the season.
"We feel like we're playing good ball right now," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "If we were able to sneak in, it would be exciting.
"If it doesn't, we understand why it won't work out. You can't start out 2-6 and expect good things to happen. This team fighting back to 6-2 in the second half is pretty cool, and I'm proud to be part of them."
Just as they made the playoffs as the sixth seed in 2005 by winning their final four games, the Steelers felt they could have been a hot, dangerous team in the playoffs.
"You don't want an 8-8 team that just got to 8-8 coming to your house," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "We already know when our backs are to the wall we're going to fight. Let us get there and see what happens.
"If we get there, we're going to make the most of it."
What might have been will remain with them for a very long time, including their most recent loss at home in a snowstorm to the Miami Dolphins, who proceeded to lose their final two games and their grip on the sixth playoff seed.
"I'll be scratching my head thinking about it," Heyward said of the many lost opportunities. "I am just proud of the guys. We could have easily just packed it up a couple weeks ago, but guys just stayed on the task ... there are other teams that would have just packed it up."
Such as the Cleveland Browns?
They began their season at 3-2 and were talking about finally overtaking the Steelers in the division. They finished with seven consecutive losses to find themselves at the bottom of the AFC North Division again at 4-12 amid reports first-year coach, Rob Chudzinski will be fired.
The Browns put up little fight Sunday at Heinz Field, even once punting from the Steelers 33.
The Steelers scored once in every quarter, starting when Jerricho Cotchery caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger. Le'Veon Bell ran 5 yards to make it 14-0 at halftime. Shaun Suisham finished up with field goals of 30 yards in the third quarter and 32 yards in the fourth.
Cleveland did not score until there was only 2:46 left in the game when Jason Campbell threw a short pass to Fozzy Whittaker, who completed a 35-yard touchdown reception.
It was the sixth consecutive time the Steelers won their season finale, five of them against the Browns. Although their 8-8 record matched their 2012 season, this one had a much better feel to it for them. They lost five of their final seven a year ago to slip out of playoff contention.
"Starting the season 0-4 and finishing the season 6-2, it shows that we progressed," said left tackle Kelvin Beachum, one of the individual success stories of 2013. "More than anything, we progressed. As our offense continued to get better, we didn't pack it up, we didn't quit. I think that says a lot about the character of this team."
A big reason the Steelers turned things around in the second half of the season was the performance of their offense. They scored at least 20 points for the ninth consecutive time, their longest such streak in 11 seasons.
Bell, who had his most productive game in Green Bay a week earlier with 124 yards, ran for 90 against Cleveland.
"I just wanted to get better each week and help this offense grow," said Bell, who missed the first three games with a sprained foot. "We've been going in the right direction, so that's all I'm really trying to do."
They won't get any more chances to show that because their odds were one game too long, and one field goal fell barely wide.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published December 29, 2013 1:41 PM