Steelers safety Ryan Clark does not believe there is much difference between the team that won Super Bowl XLIII, the team that almost won Super Bowl XLV and the one that will miss the playoffs this season after losing five of their past six games.
The talent level is comparable and many of the key players remain from those AFC championship teams, but there is one inescapable conclusion those players had to admit to Sunday after a 13-10 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals that eliminated them from playoff contention.
When it came down to clutch situations, this team failed miserably.
"If you look at our years when we went 12-4 and went to Super Bowls, we didn't blow people out," Clark said. "But, in these types of games, we find ways to make plays in the fourth quarter. That was the story all year. We find a way, defensively, offensively, or on special teams not to make a play."
The Steelers will play a meaningless game for the first time since 2006 when they play host to the Cleveland Browns Sunday at Heinz Field mostly because of their inability to find ways to win close games. In games that were decided by three points or fewer, the Steelers were 3-5. And in games that were decided by a touchdown or less they were 5-7.
"It says you don't finish, honestly," Clark said. "You don't make the plays to win football games. That's the difference."
In previous years under coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers seemingly had clutch trademarked. In their most recent championship season in 2008, they were 2-0 in regular-season games decided by three points or fewer and 6-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. And, of course, they won the Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals on a last-minute drive.
In 2010, the year the Steelers lost the Super Bowl to Green Bay, they were 3-1 in games decided by three points or fewer and 5-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Last season, they were 12-4 and earned a wild-card berth, while going 1-1 in games decided by three or fewer points and 4-2 in games decided by seven or fewer.
Those teams specialized in finding ways to win in the regular season; this one specialized in finding ways to lose.
"I don't think we made plays at the critical times," receiver Mike Wallace said. "When it's a field-goal game it's going to come down to the end. We didn't do it this year. Those last drives, we either stalled on offense or we gave up a big play on defense. We have to be better in situational football."
These Steelers lost on the final play of the game or in overtime four times.
• Oakland beat the Steelers, 34-31, when Sebastian Janikowski booted a 43-yard field goal as time expired. The Raiders came back from a 10-point deficit in the final period.
• Tennessee won, 26-23, when Rob Bironas made a 40-yard field goal as time expired.
• Dallas won, 27-24, in overtime after Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception that set up Dan Bailey's 21-yard field goal.
• Sunday, another Roethlisberger interception set up Josh Brown's 43-yard field goal with four seconds remaining.
Roethlisberger had been as clutch as anyone on the team in previous season, but he came up short in a lot of crucial situations this season.
It all started in the opener at Denver when the Steelers had the ball with the chance to win the game at the end. Roethlisberger threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in a 31-19 loss.
The Steelers won three games as time expired or in overtime, but Roethlisberger only engineered one of those drives. He led the Steelers on a 64-yard drive that resulted in a 16-14 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4 when Shaun Suisham made a field goal as time expired.
The other victories came against Kansas City in overtime after Lawrence Timmons set up a Suisham field goal with a long interception return. The offense did not take a snap in overtime. Roethlisberger left that game in the second quarter and did not return.
The next week at Baltimore reserve quarterback Charlie Batch engineered a late fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a Suisham field goal as time expired for a 13-10 victory.
"I feel as though the whole time since I've been here it's been the same way," Wallace said. "We never really blew people out. Since I've been here, it's been pretty much a field goal or touchdown will win a game. This year, it seemed like we were always on the short end of those field goals. There was only one or two times we didn't lose by a field goal. The ball didn't bounce our way. It just wasn't our year."
Four of the losses -- Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and San Diego -- came against teams that won't be in the playoffs. The list can grow to five next week if Dallas loses at Washington.
And after opening the season with four victories at Heinz Field, the Steelers dropped their past three there to the Ravens, Chargers and Bengals.
Linebacker Larry Foote said that doesn't happen to good teams.
"Good, championship teams, they protect their house and they win games that they're supposed to win," Foote said. "We were in it, but we just didn't have enough this year."
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published December 26, 2012 5:00 AM