Players stuggle for answers

What started with a pick-six in Denver in September all but ended with an interception in the final 20 seconds in late December.

The Steelers still have one game remaining. But after Reggie Nelson's interception of Ben Roethlisberger and return to the Steelers' 46-yard line with 14 seconds remaining, and after Josh Brown's subsequent 43-yard field goal with eight seconds to play in regulation, the playoffs are no longer reachable.

In the wake of Bengals 13, Steelers 10 on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, the Steelers know they won't be going to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

"We should be (going to the playoffs) if it wasn't for me," Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger finished 14 of 28 for 220 yards passing, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 58.6 against the Bengals.

The Steelers will be dragging a 7-8 record into this Sunday's season finale against Cleveland.

How did it come to this for a team that had won at 12 games in three of the previous four campaigns? The search for those answers will likely drag on into the offseason, one that will begin before the ringing in of the New Year.

"Injuries," Max Starks suggested. "We battled them left and right the entire season. We have capable and confident guys who filled in, but that's still one of the things every single week, you're wondering who was injured this week and where is there going to be a new guy?

"That's the nature of this game, who gets injured the least going into the end of the season. It wasn't in the stars for us."

The loss to Cincinnati was the Steelers' fifth by three points in 2012, and it was their fifth loss in their last six games, with the only win coming in Baltimore against the Ravens on Dec. 2.

They also beat the Giants by four, the Chiefs and Ravens by three and the Eagles by two. Two of the three-point losses occurred against non-playoff qualifiers Oakland and Tennessee.

The Steelers also lost to non-qualifiers Cleveland and San Diego, the latter at home.

"Everybody is going to circle the teams we should have beat from the outside, but we know in this league any given Sunday it doesn't matter who you're playing," linebacker Larry Foote said. "Next year we gotta have that approach."

Safety Ryan Clark saw "a multitude of reasons" for the Steelers' 2012 downfall.

"I don't think there's one reason you can point to every game," Clark continued. "What we did was create new problems every week. That starts with the older guys. That starts with execution.

"We have to take this. We didn't make the plays we were supposed to."

And the Steelers never seemingly got their offense, defense and special teams playing at a high level at the same time for an extended period.

"Those are the teams that dominate," Clark said. "The teams that get offense, defense and special teams playing at a high clip at the same time, those are the teams that win 12 games. Those are the teams that win 13 games and get home-field advantage, and we weren't that team this year."

Not becoming that team weighed especially heavily on Roethlisberger, who spoke of feeling "disappointment, pain," and of "letting a lot of people down," in the wake of the Bengals game.

"It doesn't feel good," he said. "I need to play better."

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