Labriola on loss to 49ers

SAN FRANCISCO – This was the one. Maybe not one to end with a trophy presentation, but one that would have a say in their path to those kinds of games. Beat the San Francisco 49ers and take control of your playoff fate. Because this one was played on a Monday night, they knew. They knew before they went to sleep the night before.

The Pittsburgh Steelers got themselves in position to take advantage of an opportunity that offered them some definitive benefits – win and put yourself on the fast track to the AFC's top seed throughout the playoffs – but they let it slip through their fingers.

Before their charter flight here had landed for this smackdown with the surprising 49ers, the Steelers had clinched a playoff spot. Going into the weekend, the Steelers needed just one of four teams to either lose or tie, and the Titans, Raiders, Jets and Broncos all tripped over themselves to accommodate them.

All of those teams lost, and then the Houston Texans picked up their fourth defeat, courtesy of the Carolina Panthers. But the cherry on their Sunday sundae came from the San Diego Chargers. In their typical December dash to try to squeeze into the playoffs, the Chargers manhandled the Baltimore Ravens, and the dominos were all aligned for the Steelers.

Beat the 49ers, and the Steelers would join New England as the only three-loss teams left in the AFC through 15 weeks of the 2011 season. Because the Steelers defeated the Patriots at Heinz Field back on Oct. 30, they owned the head-to-head tiebreaker, which is No. 1 on the list.

Just beat the 49ers. But they couldn't, 20-3.

This is a loss that stings even more as a result of the Ravens losing to the Chargers. Because Baltimore owns a sweep of the season series with Pittsburgh, the Steelers had needed the Ravens to acquire an additional loss somewhere before the end of the regular season in order to win the AFC North Division title and reap the postseason rewards that figured to come along with it. A red-hot Philip Rivers took care of the Ravens losing part, and as the Steelers laid their heads down on Sunday night they knew that Monday night would be their opportunity to take control.

They couldn't, and so they didn't. And even though this weekend included the clinching of a playoff spot for these Steelers, it could have been more. Much more.

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