The scoreboard facing them illuminated the unthinkable: Their season was over — and their careers might be too.
After falling behind by four scores in the first half, the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t complete the comeback Sunday night, falling to the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round of the playoffs 48-37. A promising 11-0 season was reduced to a 1-5 finish with a first-round exit at home — with a final score that looked closer than it ever felt.
“We didn’t do enough,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the late-season collapse. “We didn’t position them in enough good circumstances. We didn’t make enough plays, particularly in the critical moments. We were a group that died on the vine.”
Pouncey, a 10-year veteran, and Roethlisberger made a vow years ago to play as long as the other one did, and with Sunday night’s loss and one year left on their contracts, that day is much closer than ever before. They sat on the bench long after their teammates left the field, talking and soaking it all in.
“I love that guy,” Roethlisberger said of Pouncey. “He is one of the best competitors and teammates I’ve ever had. It’s been so much fun to share a football field with him. I hate that it ended the way it did. I just wanted to apologize to him that I wanted to win it for him.”
As Roethlisberger and Pouncey sat on the bench, a few Steelers approached the pair and shared a few moments with them. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, now entering free agency for the first time in his career, tearfully hugged his quarterback.
“I’m so thankful to have him as a quarterback, and I wouldn’t change it,” Smith-Schuster said in sharing what he told Roethlisberger. “I told him, I don’t know what your plans or what’s planned for you guys, but I’m truly thankful, from the time I walked in, first day, to the time Ben taking me under his wing. Ben told me that, ‘You fought hard, you’re a warrior and thank you.’ It was just all love.”
Roethlisberger, 38, threw for 501 yards on 68 pass attempts with four touchdowns on Sunday. But his four interceptions doomed the Steelers, who fell behind 28-0 in the first quarter.
From the outset, the very first snap of what could be the pair’s final game at Heinz Field didn’t go the way they expected. A high snap from Pouncey sailed over Roethlisberger’s head on the initial play. Roethlisberger and James Conner scrambled to corral the loose ball, but neither made an effective move to secure it. Instead, the Browns pounced on it and took a 7-0 lead with just 14 seconds off the clock.
It only got worse from there. The Browns turned three Roethlisberger first-half interceptions into 21 points for an ultimately insurmountable lead, as the Pittsburgh defense couldn’t slow Nick Chubb and the Browns’ offense. The Steelers didn’t record a single sack or force a turnover; they are 1-4 this season when they haven’t had a turnover.
“We blew it,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “I can’t sugarcoat it. You look at the score. As a…
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