Ben Roethlisberger led them into the playoffs. And then once there, they let him down.
Admittedly, that's an over-simplified, romanticized view of the last month of the 2021 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but in the immediate aftermath of that 42-21 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium in the penultimate Wild Card Round Game of the three-day weekend, that's the way it felt. Rightly or wrongly, that's the way it felt.
A month ago, as the Steelers were filing out of the same visitor's locker room in the same stadium after a similarly thorough thrashing by the same Chiefs team, their playoff hopes were in the trash just like all of the ripped up wrapping paper that had sacrificed itself the day before on Christmas morning. After 36-10 they were 7-7-1, confined to the low-rent district of the AFC North Division, and with a fortnight remaining in the regular season their prospects were as grim and foreboding as the Western Pennsylvania sky in the middle of February.
Maybe the Steelers needed a cause, or maybe they needed a catalyst, and as it turned out Roethlisberger provided both.
The feel-good that developed over the apparent approaching end of his stellar career with the Steelers may have lacked the specific directness of the "get Jerome back home to Detroit for the Super Bowl" initiative of the 2005 season, but there still was a groundswell building to make this series of "lasts" special for their long-time franchise quarterback.
Roethlisberger's "last" game at Heinz Field was the unofficial theme of the Jan. 3 appointment with the Browns, and there were 63,624 fans on hand lending their hearts and voices to the occasion. It wasn't pretty, that 26-14 victory over Cleveland, but a win is a win, and that one was gritty, somewhat ugly, but ultimately good enough to get them to 8-7-1, and therefore was appropriate recognition for the guest of honor, because so often over the course of his 18 professional seasons Roethlisberger had made those kinds of victories his trademark.
That weekend left a flicker of hope that maybe the Steelers might be able to gift Roethlisberger one more postseason before he rode off into the sunset, and so sights were set on the "last trip to Baltimore" for a "last dance with the Ravens." And fitting with the history of the rivalry, the Ravens chose that same occasion to honor one of their own greats – Terrell Suggs – who completed his decorated career as the player who had sacked Roethlisberger more times than any other.
Steelers-Ravens ended up looking a lot like Steelers-Browns from an aesthetic standpoint, but it had the added drama of adding a win-or-go-home aspect in terms of the playoffs, and instead of ending after 60 minutes, it went into overtime. And with the season on the line, the old quarterback delivered for his team and teammates again.
He converted a third-and-7, a third-and-9, and a fourth-and-8 during the overtime drive that concluded with Chris Boswell putting the finishing touches on the snap-hold process in cold, windy, wet conditions to bring the Steelers to the cusp of the postseason. In the wee hours, the Las Vegas Raiders did their part by squeezing out a victory over the Chargers, and Roethlisberger would be able to lead this team into the postseason again. For what everyone assumed would be the final time.
That brings us to Sunday evening and brings us back to Arrowhead Stadium. The Kansas City Chiefs were going to be a must stiffer challenge than either of those two division opponents. In fact, the Chiefs were going to be a must stiffer challenge than whatever all-star team could be fashioned from the rosters of those two division opponents. The Steelers entered Wild Card Weekend as a pronounced underdog, as the biggest underdog in any of the six games played over the three-day weekend. But being difficult was going to make it fun for the kind of competitor Roethlisberger has been his entire life, and then it was what was going to make it satisfying once they pulled it off.
Things began in Kansas City in a rather ugly manner, but that was part of the plan. Slug it out with the Chiefs, trade punches certainly, but don't allow them to draw blood early, because this was a game that would require 60 minutes of everything they had. Think Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman in Zaire. Take some punches, land some punches, all the while setting the stage for a late flurry leading to a shocking ending vs. the favored opponent.
The Steelers went three-and-out on their opening three possessions, and Roethlisberger looked nothing like the first-ballot Hall of Fame selection he's expected to be. But that was OK, because the Chiefs looked similarly ineffective on offense over the same timeframe, and then the defense stepped up.
T.J. Watt, one of the Steelers' two first-team All-Pro selections this season, aborted a pass rush and got in Patrick Mahomes' throwing lane. He batted the ball into the air, and Devin Bush was there for the interception. The Steelers and Roethlisberger couldn't do anything with the takeaway or the field position it provided, and after one first down punted the ball back to the Chiefs.
Not to be deterred, the Steelers defense tried again in short order, and this time finished the job themselves. Cam Heyward, the Steelers' other first-team All-Pro, forced a fumble by running back Darrel Williams, and in the scramble for the loose ball, Watt scooped it and ran 26 yards for the touchdown that gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead.
But instead of capitalizing and using that big play as a launching pad, the Steelers collapsed. In the same way that handling explosives eventually will cause grievous bodily harm if great care isn't taken and strict procedures aren't followed, so too is dealing with the Chiefs offense hazardous to an opposing team's health in the single-elimination tournament that is the NFL playoffs.
Kansas City's offense responded to the deficit by driving 76 yards in eight plays to score the touchdown that tied the game. The Steelers offense went three-and-out. The Chiefs then drove 74 yards in seven plays to take a 14-7 lead. The Steelers offense went three-and-out. The Chiefs offense marched 80 yards in six plays, and it was 21-7. Roethlisberger took a knee to end the first half before any more damage was done.
Once the game was tied, that was when the Steelers offense needed to assert itself. Move the ball. Eat some clock. Answer with some points of their own. But the unit offered nothing except dropped passes, some plays on passes that could've been made but weren't, miscommunication between passer and receiver, blown assignments and/or losing one-on-one skirmishes that stifled the running game and exposed Roethlisberger to the pass rush. The boulder was rolling down the hill and gaining momentum, and the Steelers had nothing or nobody to slow it down even a little bit.
"We didn't execute nearly well enough. We didn't," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I mean, it was several minutes into the third quarter, and we had two first downs. You're just not going to keep pace with a lot of people like that, particularly an offense as explosive as the one that Kansas City has."
When asked whether he believed his receivers had plays to be made but didn't, Tomlin's answer was blunt and biting.
"You think? Yes!"
And that offensive production remained offensive until the Chiefs' continued forays into the Steelers end zone made the score so one-sided that the game degenerated into garbage time. It was 35-7 before the Steelers scored an offensive touchdown, and by the time the Chiefs had put the finishing touches on what ended up being a 42-21 victory, their scoresheet showed a tight end throwing a touchdown pass and an eligible guard catching one.
"We had to possess the ball. We had to minimize their possessions," said Tomlin. "We had to create scarcity for them in terms of opportunity, and we weren't able to maintain that. We were getting after them early on, but they still possessed the ball from a time of possession standpoint. They still had opportunities. We didn't press them enough. We didn't make them feel the pressure in totality of what we were doing."
With that, the Chiefs were on to the Divisional Round, and the Steelers season was over, as was their brief visit to this postseason. And because of that, the feel-good was finished, to be replaced by a long offseason of doing the work that always accompanies such a bitter end.
As for what he got from his franchise quarterback one last time, assuming it was the last time, Tomlin said, "Man, he was No. 7. It's been an honor and a pleasure. I don't have the words."
The words his offensive teammate should have for him: "We're sorry. You deserved better."