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After Further Review: Playoff caliber if not playoff eligible 

After further review …

It would have been different this time had they qualified for a rematch against Buffalo, not that T.J. Watt cared to engage in such speculation.

"We'll never know," Watt maintained from the podium at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon following a victory over Cleveland that was inspiring and at the same time not quite enough. "I felt like if we got in we had a good chance to make some headlines but we'll never know."

Not after Dolphins 11, Jets 6, which ensured Steelers 28, Browns 14 and a bounce back from 2-6 and 3-7 to 9-8 wasn't enough to extend the season.

As for how the Steelers had managed to come as close as they had, Watt was able to speak with much more clarity.

"We were just starting to play some really damn good football," he assessed.

That they were.

And that's the disappointing part.

The Steelers were clearly better at the end than they were at the beginning, much better.

That isn't reason enough to stage a parade or hold a trophy presentation, but nor is it an insignificant progression.

"Being alive the last day of the season, having a chance to get into the playoffs, I think it is progress," Steelers president Art Rooney II had observed on the Steelers Radio Network Pregame Show before the ball had been kicked off against the Browns. "I think it's a team that improved over the course of the season, which is what you want to see."

That improvement was on display again throughout what became the season finale against Cleveland.

It goes far beyond Kenny Pickett and George Pickens, the top two picks in which so much was invested and upon so much depended.

In the end, this was an offense that could run the ball after all. An offense in which Connor Heyward, another rookie albeit a far less heralded one as a sixth-round pick, could lead undrafted rookie running back Jaylen Warren around right end for a big gain on the ground or make a couple of clutch catches in the passing game during a critical drive to put a game away (both occurrances helped beat Cleveland).

And in the end, this was a defense that could stuff the run, sack the quarterback and take the ball away (seven more sacks and two more interceptions confounded the Browns throughout).

Everybody, it seemed, had a hand in the pile.

This wasn't just a Steelers team that won its last four games and six of its last seven.

This became a Steelers team capable of playing winning football.

That's always the objective, because it's the latter that's sustainable.

And these Steelers played it amid the toughest of circumstances while in the process of coming up just short.

"Younger guys, older guys, of age middle guys, I think everybody can contribute," Cam Heyward pointed out. "You had to go to Baltimore, win a night game. You had to win those two AFC North games (the Ravens and the Browns), back to back, man, that is something you can really keep growing on and keep building on."

The Steelers grew and built and progressed in 2022.

They didn't do it fast enough and they didn't come far enough, but they still managed to confirm who they are and what they're all about, as players, as a coaching staff and as an organization.

They're still the Steelers and they aren't going anywhere any time soon.

And Watt was spot on about the "damn good football" they were playing right up until they ran out of games to play.

As for the Buffalo rematch in the postseason we'll never see, it wouldn't have been 38-3 this time.

They might not have won it, but it would have been a game worth watching.

Maybe next year.

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