The Steelers humiliated the Browns for a second time in 2013, then came within four inches of making an improbable playoff appearance. Yes, the same Steelers who opened the season 0-4 finished on an 8-4 run that saw them catch up to the rest of the middling AFC pack. This picture might haunt me forever:
Why haunt? Because despite resting nearly the entirety of their starting unit, the Chiefs had a makeable game-winning 41-yard FG drift wide right and take the Steelers' playoff hopes with it.
There's a school of thought that the Chiefs blowing a lead against the Chargers in dramatic fashion should not be cited as a disappointment by Steelers fans, considering this Pittsburgh team lost to the like of Minnesota and Oakland and Tennessee earlier in the year. Take care of business early in the year and then you don't have to rely on Ryan dsfkagjhga Succop in the closing moments of the season, right? I don't subscribe to this, partly because despite the poor play, the Steelers played as much "good football" as needed to qualify in a weak AFC, and Succop's kick erases both good AND bad regular season moments...clean slate in the second season. Also, the Chargers, Ravens and Dolphins, all teams mathematically alive with the Steelers at the start of Sunday, all had chances to win a game that they dropped to a "lesser" opponent in 2013. The Steelers aren't some team in a vacuum where laws of rationality and playoff probability only apply to them and not their contemporaries in the hunt. That KC FG was a cure-all, and it went the way of an unfortunate chunk of this season.
But that's all big-picture-y. Reminder, the Steelers fought back to an 8-8 record with a thumping of the Browns:
Cleveland never really had a chance in this one. Well, technically they did, considering they opened with the ball. Only they went three-and-out, punted to a Steelers team that marched down on the backs of Ben Roethlisberger and Jerricho Cotchery to go up 7-0 and never really look back. The Steelers ended their 2013 season by taking care of business at home against a dysfunctional Browns team, saw fate smile on the Chargers instead and now wait for an eventful offseason to get moving.
Ben: Not really the best of games for Ben, with the TD to Cotchery but also two INTs and just 179 yards. Part of that was due to the Steelers just going up 20-0 and Ben's general disinterest in the game by latter points. He had to stay in there with the Kansas City game still being influential on their season, but there's little to play for when your opponent is just rolling over. Ben had a pretty great season, establishing franchise records in season attempts and career yards, but tried to do too much early with big injuries at the RB, C and LB spots, and fumbled and was intercepted on too many of those occassions. He settled into a nifty team leader role and almost carried the team to the playoffs, as he could've easily made a case for Antonio Brown's team MVP. But the down games were just too far down. 3.5 of 5 motorcycle helmets on the game and year.
Le'Veon Bell: 90 yards and a TD for a great individual performance in this game, but now it's time to look back on his season. After missing the opening three weeks, Bell put up 860 rushing yards and eight TDs. Those are fantastic numbers for a rookie through 16 games. One can only wonder how the season goes with Bell in the lineup at the start of 2013 rather than the Redman/Stephens-Howling/Dwyer/Jones cluster that tried to hold it down early. 4 of 5 motorcycle helmets for Bell on the day and the season.
Defense: Brett Keisel went nuts in his final game as a Steeler, with a vintage strip sack. No one knows Troy's intentions or if the Steelers will have him back. Ike Taylor is asking to move to safety if it means he can keep playing. There's going to be a lot of turnover on the Steelers D so it was bittersweet to watch them completely own the Browns one final time Sunday. Sure, there was a late, garbage-time TD scored, but these guys deserved a shutout. The youngs guys showed flashes, too...Jarvis with nine tackles, Cam with another sack and Lawrence Timmons still dominating in every aspect with a nice pick. Like Ben, the defense struggled early, but more often through the season as well. While the offense scored 20+ points in the final nine games of the year, the team record only shows 6-3. Previous defenses that allowed low-teens in the points department would've provided nine wins. One of those three losses was the franchise record output against the Patriots. Not the good kind of records, either. 30+ to the Dolphins and 20+ to the Ravens and the late season "surge" by the Steelers is made tougher than it should've been. 2.5 of 5 helmets for the season, 4 of 5 helmets for the game.
Antonio Brown: He ends his season and the first guy to record 5+ catches and 50+ yards in every game. 1,499 yards and eight TDs, he had a great year, completely deserves the team MVP award, and hopefully grows even more next year. He'll be needed to provide offense to a team considerably rebuilding, but also he's going to need to be a veteran presence for the young guys. He's no longer "young money." He's gotta be that vet. 3.5 of 5 motorcycle helmets for the game, 4.5 of 5 motorcycle helmets for the season.
And so. much. love. to Jerricho Cotchery for his 10TDs this year. The Steelers are a worse team without him.
Next week's opponent is Steelers withdrawal. And next year's opponent is the NFL. The Steelers are going to win the next eight Super Bowls.