The ending was equal parts fascinating, surreal, and heartbreaking.
The Cleveland Browns on the Jumbotron at Heinz Field early Sunday evening, fighting the clock and the Baltimore Ravens, driving for the field goal that would erase a two-point deficit and deliver the AFC North Division Championship to the Steelers.
Steelers players, coaches and staff members assembled at the stadium’s south end, celebrating or agonizing after every Cleveland snap.
The stands still packed with fans, the vast majority among the 63,874 who had witnessed the 16-13 victory over the Bengals that had temporarily kept the Steelers’ playoff hopes afloat waiting it out until the bitter end and even chanting “Let’s Go Browns” while there was still hope.
“I thought it was going to happen,” safety Jordan Dangerfield admitted. “It happened like this, I think, in 2015 when Buffalo beat somebody and we got in like that.
“I was having deja vu with that and hoping Baker was going to get it done, but they came up short.”
Buffalo beat the New York Jets in 2015.
But Baker Mayfield’s fourth-and-10 pass from the Ravens’ 39-yard line with 1:06 left in regulation was intercepted in 2018.
The Ravens held on, 26-24.
After that, the Steelers’ postseason hopes were down to Tennessee and Indianapolis playing to a tie on Sunday night.
That didn’t happen, either (the Colts won, 33-17).
In between endings, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger admittedly tried not to reflect but did to an extent, anyway.
“Honestly, some disappointment in the season,” he said. “I’m trying not to reflect right now but it’s hard not to.
“But I think the biggest thing, I just got done seeing my linemen, so I think pride in my guys, pride in guys who stepped up (against the Bengals).”
The Steelers played without wide receiver Antonio Brown, inside linebacker Vince Williams and free safety Sean Davis, and with new kicker Matt MaCrane replacing Chris Boswell (reserve/injured) against Cincinnati.
They also overcame a 10-0 deficit on the way to finishing at 9-6-1.
“We’re some fighters,” Dangerfield said. ”We’re not quitters, for sure. We kept fighting week in and week out.”
Dangerfield was one of the many who had remained on the Heinz Field playing surface to watch the conclusion of the Browns-Ravens game.
Guard David DeCastro was another.
“It was pretty fun, pretty exciting until the final play,” he said. “It’s been a playoff kind of month the last couple games.”
IT’S HOW YOU FINISH: The Steelers had a record of 7-2-1 following a 20-16 victory on Nov. 18 at Jacksonville.
The win over the Bengals on Sunday was the Steelers’ second over the regular season’s final six games.
“I don’t know a particular (turning) point but I just think in those critical situations where, as an offense, as a defense we needed a play, we weren’t getting it,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “It’s baffling sometimes but as players, as coaches, as a staff, as Steelers we have make those adjustments. We have to go out there and do it and we didn’t get it done this whole season, and that’s what’s really going to stick with me.”
Finishing 9-6-1 was of no consolation to Heyward.
“Our goals were higher than that,” he said. “To know we didn’t achieve those goals, especially going to the playoffs, that’s going to stick with you.”
WHO TO BLAME: Outside linebacker Bud Dupree had high praise for head coach Mike Tomlin and placed the responsibility for missing the playoffs on the shoulders of the players.
“Coach Tomlin’s one of the best coaches in the league,” Dupree insisted. “If you want a new coach for the Steelers who are you going to get, (Bill) Belichick? There’s really nobody else who could fill his void.
“At the end of the day it’s on us to go out there and make it happen. We have to go out and perform on Sundays. It’s up to us to really go out there and dominate. We just didn’t finish games like we should have.”
WAIT ’TIL NEXT YEAR: Roethlisberger said noting that occurred in the 2018 season would alter his perception of the Steelers’ potential to win a championship in the 2019 season.
“No, because I think we have a really good group,” he said. “The (offensive) linemen, as long as they come back, they’re the core. They’re the strength of this team and if they come back; I’ll be back and I feel good. We have guys that just got better. We have young guys that just keep getting better, guys like JuJu (Smith-Schuster) and (running back) James Conner. Guys are just going to keep getting better.
“I don’t think our window’s closed.”
Roethlisberger expressed a desire for as much continuity as possible heading into 2019.
“Anytime that you can kind of keep that core group, keep people together, the less turnover the better, usually,” he said.”From the top down, I think that’s important.”