The scoreboard in front of them illuminated the unthinkable: their season was over and their careers could be too.
After falling four points behind in the first half, the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t finish the comeback Sunday night, falling to the Cleveland Browns in the 48-37 playoff round. A promising 11-0 season reduced to a 1-5 finish with a first-round exit at home, with a final score looking closer than ever.
“We haven’t done enough,” said coach Mike Tomlin of the season-ending meltdown. “We didn’t put them in good enough circumstances. We didn’t play enough games, especially at the critical times. We were a group who died on the vine. ”
10-year veteran Pouncey and Roethlisberger vowed years ago to play as long as the other, and with Sunday night’s loss and a year left on their contracts, that day is much closer. than ever. They sat on the bench long after their teammates left the pitch, talking and soaking up everything.
“I love this guy,” Roethlisberger said of Pouncey. “He’s one of the best competitors and teammates I’ve ever had. It was so much fun sharing a football pitch with him. I hate that it ended like this. I just wanted to apologize to him. earn it for him. ”
As Roethlisberger and Pouncey sat on the bench, a few Steelers approached the pair and shared a few moments with them. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is now entering free agency for the first time in his career, hugged his quarterback in tears.
“I’m so grateful to have him as a quarterback and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Smith-Schuster said of what he said to Roethlisberger. “I told him, I don’t know what your plans are or what’s in store for you guys, but I’m really grateful, from the time I walked in, day one, until Ben took me over. under his wing. Ben told me. “You fought hard, you are a warrior and thank you. It was just love. ”
Roethlisberger, 38, threw for 501 yards on 68 attempted passes with four touchdowns. But his four interceptions doomed the Steelers as they trailed 28-0 in the first half.
From the start, the very first snapshot of what could be the pair’s final game at Heinz Field did not go as planned. A high snap from Pouncey sailed over Roethlisberger’s header in the very first game of the match. Roethlisberger and James Conner rushed to retrieve the lost ball, but neither managed to secure it. Instead, the Browns jumped on it and took a 7-0 lead just 14 seconds behind.
It only got worse from there, as the Browns turned three more interceptions from Roethlisberger into 21 points for an ultimately insurmountable lead, as the defense couldn’t slow Nick Chubb and the Browns’ offense down. The Steelers haven’t registered a single sack or forced a roll. They are 1-4 this season despite having had no turnover.
“We messed it up,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “I can’t make sugar. You watch the score. As a defender, we gave up too many points. And as a leader, as a defense leader, I failed, miserably, and you know, it’s hard to lose. . It’s hard to lose guys in our locker room who have done great things on and off the pitch. And you know, this stranger is killing me. To waste an opportunity like that and know that we haven’t played our brand of football and that sucks. ”
Roethlisberger’s dismal first half – 20 of 30 passes for 177 yards and three interceptions – was an ugly echo of the first halves against the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, as it looked like the future Hall of Famer had lost contact. Against the Colts, he found his rhythm for a comeback victory in the second half. Against the Browns, it was too late.
“It wasn’t good enough,” Roethlisberger said of his performance. “When you lose a game like this you can look back and assess whatever you want about the season, how you did in that game, that game, the races, the stretches. I mean, at some point we’ll be looking back on the whole thing.
“But when it doesn’t end the way you want it to, you’re still going to feel some kind of path, like you’ve failed or it’s your fault.”
The Steelers started to pounce after halftime, edging the Browns 13-0, but Tomlin chose to play for field position and kick the fourth and a 1 of 46 to open the fourth quarter, interrupting the momentum of his team. The Browns scored on the subsequent drive to take a 42-23 lead.
“We had a few saves, we wanted to pin them down, maybe provide the short ground for our attack,” said Tomlin. “We had maybe two or three consecutive saves. I just wanted to keep the momentum going in terms of positioning on the pitch. But we weren’t good enough to do it. ”
With the loss, the Steelers lost three straight playoff games, including the 2017 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, when they gave up 45 points to the visitors.
“It is what it is,” said Tomlin when asked about personal responsibility for playoff chess. “Our record is our record. Our performance is our performance. Don’t run away from it. ”
Tomlin, who hasn’t lost a regular season as the Steelers head coach, only has a .500 mark in the playoffs.
“We didn’t perform well enough tonight,” he said. “No coaching, no game. You can attribute that to the turnover game. But we haven’t been good enough in a lot of other areas, communication, in terms of detail. It’s not a good night for us. In simple elimination. tournaments, when you don’t have a good night, you go home. ”
With the season over, Roethlisberger has a major decision looming. He has one final year left on his $ 41.2 million contract, and he’s already said if he doesn’t play in a way that helps his team, he’ll “hang up.”
After Sunday’s game, however, Roethlisberger said he had yet to make a decision about his future.
“It’s going to start between me and God, a lot of prayers. Lots of discussions with my family, discussions, decisions. I still have a year left on my contract. I hope the Steelers want me to come back, if that’s how we are going to be a lot of talk, but now is not the time.
“This loss is fresh. She’s just sitting on our hearts and minds right now. She will be for a while. ”