PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers long-shot lottery ticket to make the playoffs came agonizingly close, but they came up one number short, their season ended abruptly by a few feet a continent away this evening.
Needing an eight-game parlay entering the final two weeks of the season to squeeze in as the sixth seed from the AFC, the Steelers had 7-for-7 on their side, including their methodical 20-7 victory over Cleveland Sunday at Heinz Field.
But a Kansas City upset in San Diego Sunday evening was too much to ask. The playoff-bound Chiefs, sitting most of their starters in a meaningless game to them, lost a 10-point second-half lead and the Chargers claimed the final AFC seat in the post-season with an overtime victory. Kansas City's Ryan Succop just missed a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left in regulation that would have won the game and put the Steelers in the playoffs.
The disappointment will be stinging when the Steelers gather Monday on the South Side for the final time as a group in 2013, but they left their locker room Sunday with a better feeling of their 8-8 record that began with 0-4, their worst start in 45 years.
"Proud of the fight," Ben Roethlisberger declared. "Obviously we started really tough, but there was no quit, like we said there wouldn't be."
After losing their first four, they went 8-4, 6-2 in the second half and believe they are on a roll.
"I'm really proud of what has happened," Roethlisberger said. "We started 0-4 and things aren't looking so good, and we have one of the worst records in football. Guys continued to fight and never quit. I will look at satisfaction as happy and proud of the fight and no one quitting."
Their locker room empty long before the Kansas City-San Diego result was in, Steelers players left with a good feeling about their play over the second half of the season in which they finished 6-2.
"We feel like we're playing good ball right now," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "If we were able to sneak in, it would be exciting.
"If it doesn't, we understand why it won't work out. You can't start out 2-6 and expect good things to happen. This team fighting back to 6-2 in the second half is pretty cool and I'm proud to be part of them."
Just as they made the playoffs as the sixth seed in 2005 by winning their final four games, the Steelers felt they could have been a hot, dangerous team in the playoffs.
"You don't want an 8-8 team that just got to 8-8 coming to your house," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "We already know when our backs are to the wall we're going to fight. Let us get there and see what happens.
"If we get there, we're going to make the most of it."
What might have been will remain with them for a very long time, including their most recent loss at home in a snowstorm to the Miami Dolphins, who proceeded to lose their final two games to lose their grip on the sixth playoff seed.
"I'll be scratching my head thinking about it," Heyward said of the many lost opportunities. "I am just proud of the guys. We could have easily just packed it up a couple weeks ago, but guys just stayed on the task ... there are other teams that would have just packed it up."
Such as the Cleveland Browns?
They began their season at 3-2 and were talking about overtaking the Steelers finally in the division. They finished with seven straight losses to again find themselves at the bottom of the AFC North at 4-12 amid reports their first-year coach, Rob Chudzinski will be fired.
The Browns put up little fight at Heinz Field Sunday, even once punting from the Steelers' 33 yard line.
The Steelers scored once in every quarter, starting when Jerricho Cotchery caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger. Le'Veon Bell ran 5 yards to make it 14-0 at halftime. Shaun Suisham finished up with field goals of 30 yards in the third quarter and 32 yards in the fourth.
Cleveland did not score until 2:46 left in the game when Jason Campbell threw a short pass to Fozzy Whittaker who completed a 35-yard touchdown reception.
It was the sixth straight time the Steelers won their season finale, five of them against the Browns. Although their 8-8 record matched their 2012, this one had a much better feel to it for them. They lost five of their final seven in 2012 to slip out of playoff contention.
"Starting the season 0-4 and finishing the season 6-2, it shows that we progressed," said left tackle Kelvin Beachum, one of the individual success stories of 2013. "More than anything, we progressed. As our offense continued to get better, we didn't pack it up, we didn't quit. I think that says a lot about the character of this team."
A big reason the Steelers turned things around in the second half of the season was the performance of their offense. They scored at least 20 points for the ninth straight time, their longest such streak in 11 seasons.
Bell, who had his most productive game in Green Bay a week earlier with 124 yards, ran for 90 against Cleveland.
"I just wanted to get better each week and help this offense grow," said Bell, who missed the first three games of the season with a sprained foot. "We've been going in the right direction so that's all I'm really trying to do."
They won't get any more chances to show that because their odds were one game too long, and one field goal barely wide.
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