FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The loss to the Patriots didn’t just end the season, it ended the 2016 Steelers.
That was as difficult to come to grips with in the visitor’s locker room at Gillette Stadium late Sunday night as Patriots 36, Steelers 17.
“Obviously, this isn’t a great feeling,” free safety Mike Mitchell acknowledged. “This is the National Football League, people’s contracts are up, things of that nature. There’s a draft, there’s free agency, so this will not be the same team.
“That’s what makes it so, you know, it’s brutal right now, it’s kinda sad. We’ve kinda had this family building together since April, May, and now it will never be the same again. We thought we had the group to really do something special and get it done.
“It’s always unfortunate when you lose the last game of the year. This is my eighth time around so I’m experienced at it but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
APPRECIATION AND PERSPECTIVE: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger understood how far the Steelers had come this season, and the special nature of the opportunity that ultimately eluded them against the Patriots.
“I told the guys afterward I was proud of them,” he said. “We went from 4-5 to the (AFC) Championship Game. If there’s going to be any silver lining, it’s that. I’m just real proud of the guys and just a lot of love.
“The lord has blessed me to be on a great football team, a great organization. It’s disappointing we couldn’t get this one for Mr. (Dan) Rooney. I really wanted to do it for him.
“Hopefully, this is a learning game for guys to understand that this isn’t promised to anybody. Tomorrow’s not promised to any of us. Just to make the playoffs isn’t enough. To get to this (AFC) Championship Game, a lot of guys have been in this league for a long time and haven’t been to any of these of have been to very few. I hope they understand the importance and relish the opportunity if it comes again.”
WHAT WENT WRONG: The result, in head coach Mike Tomlin’s estimation, was a product of the manner in which it was eventually achieved.
“Not a lot went our way, not only in terms of the final score but just how the game was played,” Tomlin said. “They played the type of ball they normally play. We didn’t play the type of ball we normally play.
“In order for us to be successful we felt like we had to play our stye of ball and it didn’t get to that.”
The specifics therein included the Steelers’ three trips inside the Patriots’ red zone (only one resulted in a touchdown) and a relative lack of splash plays that had come to define the offense.
“Those need to turn into seven points,” Roethlisberger said of the Steelers’ red zone penetrations. “There were other missed opportunities, whether we didn’t execute well enough, whether plays weren’t made by me or other guys.
“At times it almost felt maybe it was too big for some of the young guys.”
Roethlisberger acknowledged frustration in that regard “because we talk about sometimes it’s just one play here, one play there,” he said. “We didn’t make those plays. Was it too big? What it was, I don’t know. We need to make every single play in a game like this against an opponent like this.”
The Steelers lost running back Le’Veon Bell (groin), for good, as it turned out, after a 2-yard gain midway through the second quarter. Bell finished with six carries for 20 yards and didn’t catch a pass and his absence affected the Steelers’ strategy.
“No question,” Tomlin said. “But injuries are a part of the game. We didn’t do a good enough job or a quick enough job adapting to the circumstance.”
The defense held the Patriots to a game-opening field goal on a possession that reached the Steelers’ 13-yard line and then sacked quarterback Tom Brady to complete a three-and-out the second time the Pats got their hands on the ball.
But Brady, who would be sacked just one other time, wound up completing 32 of 42 passes for a Patriots’ postseason-record 384 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t intercepted and the Steelers finished with zero passes defensed on Brady’s 42 throws.
“Knock some of those passes down, that would have stopped some of that hurry-up,” offense, cornerback Ross Cockrell said.
When failing to do so, “We just gotta do a good job tackling the catch,” Cockrell continued. “That’s what we prided ourselves on all year and we didn’t do that.”
New England drove 80 yards on 11 plays in 4:36 on its third possession for a touchdown that upped the lead to 10-0.
All of a sudden, Brady and the Patriots had found their rhythm.
“Brady started making a lot of good plays,” linebacker Bud Dupree said. “He started calling a lot of checks (at the line of scrimmage). He was quarterbacking the offense like he does. We just didn’t have an answer for it.”
THEY SAID IT: “I didn’t expect that. I definitely felt like we were going to take control of the game and play a lot better as a unit. I know he’s one of the top quarterbacks ever to play the game and maybe the top quarterback ever to play the game. But at the end of the day he’s human and humans make mistakes, last week you saw it (in the Houston-New England game). I thought we were going to be able to get to him this week but he got us.” _ Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier on Brady.
“I’m not done.” _ Steelers linebacker James Harrison, 38, at the conclusion of his 14th NFL season.
“I’m not ready to paint with a broad brush. This 2016 (season) is over for us. We’ll start anew like everybody else in football in 2017. It’s never a continuation.” _ Tomlin on what the 2016 season means to the 2017 Steelers.