Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photos
Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes celebrates his 67-yard touchdown reception with Larry Foote after beating the Bengals, 23-17, in overtime yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI -- The Steelers gave Bill Cowher a parting gift yesterday, one he won't have to return if he surprises them and decides to come back as their coach.
The Steelers' long, disappointing Super Bowl reign ended on a glum, rainy New Year's Eve with a 23-17 overtime victory that left them and the Cincinnati Bengals right where they ended last season -- deadlocked in the AFC North Division.
At 8-8 each, though, two of the preseason Super Bowl favorites ended short of the playoffs. For Cincinnati, the final blow came when rookie Santonio Holmes caught a 67-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger on the third play of overtime to win it for the Steelers.
It came after Jeff Reed's 35-yard field goal tied the score with 1:03 to go. Shayne Graham missed a 39-yard field goal try wide right with eight seconds left in regulation that would have won the game for Cincinnati and put them into the playoffs because of Kansas City's win against visiting Jacksonville and Denver's loss to visiting San Francisco last night. Had the Steelers won nine games this season they would have been the AFC's sixth seed for the second year in a row.
The Steelers now turn their attention to Cowher's impending decision about his future. He talked to his players for the first time about it after the game in an emotional moment in the locker room.
"I was asked a question today by the players and I'll say the same thing: I really don't know," Cowher said at what might be his final postgame news conference as Steelers coach. "I'll talk to some people in the next couple of days and I'm going to take some time to reflect. I don't want to make decisions in the heat of the moment that's emotional based."
Cowher said he is leaning a certain way but wanted some more time before he makes it final.
"It's hard when I see those players. That's why I'm in this business, those guys in the locker room.
"That's why you have to step back and remove the emotion. ... I know where I'm leaning, but I want to make sure I think clearly about it. It's too important a decision to do it any other way.
"I'm not burned out. I don't need a lot of time. But I need some time to make sure it's a very clearly thought-out decision."
Cowher said he wants to talk to some people first and then think about it. Asked if he will decide in the next couple of weeks, he said, "Oh, yeah." He said he will not second-guess himself afterward.
"I've never done that in my life. I make a decision, it's well-thought out. I'm not a hindsight guy. I move forward, that's what life's all about. I'll do that."
Steelers president Art Rooney II and his father, Dan Rooney, the club chairman, each declined comment on Cowher's status.
"I think he's going to make a decision that's going to be best for him and his family," said linebacker Joey Porter, who asked Cowher the question about his future in the locker room. "You give up a lot, too, when you dedicate yourself to football, so I can understand which way he's going.
"Me, for selfish reasons, I'll be upset if he doesn't come back. At the same time, if he doesn't come back I understand it. That's a decision he has to make and a decision we have to live with."
If Cowher steps down, "It'll be a big blow to everybody," Porter said. "But at the same time, whatever decision he makes, we'll be happy with it and we'll keep it rolling."
Steelers fans ask for coach Cowher to stay before the start of the game yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.
Coach Bill Cowher: The "big decision," the game and Willie Parker
Santonio Holmes: How it felt to make that big play and on being back in Ohio
Hines Ward: The game, the year and will Cowher stay
Bill Cowher argues a call yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
Click photo for larger image.
As the third-place team in the AFC North Division, the Steelers' schedule is set for next season:
Home: San Francisco, Seattle, Buffalo, Miami, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
Away: Arizona, St. Louis, New England, New York Jets, Kansas City, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
Dates and times usually are not announced until April.
They rolled to victory yesterday for the sixth time in their past eight games -- reversing the first half of the season when they went 2-6. At times, though, it was rocky.
Willie Parker ran for two touchdowns -- he now owns the Steelers' record with 16 touchdowns in a season -- and 134 yards to leave him 6 yards short of 1,500 for the season. But he also lost a fumble as he was about to cross the goal line through a big hole.
That would have given the Steelers a 14-3 lead early in the fourth quarter. Instead, safety Dexter Jackson recovered the ball in the end zone for Cincinnati. Three plays later, Carson Palmer hit Chris Henry for a 66-yard touchdown that gave the Bengals their first lead at 10-7.
"I just let my team down," Parker said of his fumble. "It just opened up so big and I got too excited and I was careless with the ball."
Parker approached the sideline hanging his head and Cowher spoke to him.
"I didn't want him to change any of his running style," Cowher said. "I didn't want him to start running cautiously. He's not a fumbler, that's not him. It was a wet day."
Parker came back to score on a 1-yard run with 7:27 left that put the Steelers in front 14-10.
The Bengals, though, jumped back on top with 2:47 left on a 5-yard pass from Carson Palmer to Tony Stewart.
The Steelers followed with a 66-yard drive that ended in Reed's 35-yard field goal that tied the score with 1:03 left.
If it were Cowher's last game, he went out a winner on the road, just as he started his Steelers coaching career with a 29-24 upset Sept. 6, 1992, at Houston.
"I'm glad we won and if this is coach's last game, send him out on a good note," Parker said.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com .