What might have been for Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger is playing at an incredibly high level, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have found a running back for every down in Le'Veon Bell. The offensive line has come together despite a spate of injuries, and the defense has held together even with the cracks that have become more pronounced this season.

The playoffs, cruelly dangled in front of the 5-7 Steelers -- or at least their fans -- after a three-game winning streak, might now have finally moved beyond their grasp as they probably have to win out to reach the postseason.

It is not realistic to think that 8-8 gets into the playoffs. Even if one such team happens to back into the postseason, it will have to emerge from a tangle of tiebreakers.

The shame of it for the Steelers -- if they don’t win their final four games -- is that a loss to their archrivals won't have done them in as far as the playoffs. What will really sting: a couple of bad losses earlier in the season didn’t allow enough wriggle room in the event a rivalry game that could have gone either way went against them, as was the case Thanksgiving night in Baltimore.

Imagine if the Steelers were 6-6 even after the 22-20 loss to the Ravens. Imagine if the Steelers had managed to beat either the Vikings in London or the Raiders in Oakland. Had they won one of those games against teams quarterbacked by Matt Cassel and Terrelle Pryor, respectively, they would still be in the running for the AFC North title and in decent shape as far as AFC wild-card race.

One thing that has separated Mike Tomlin playoff teams from those that have missed the postseason is the former generally won the games they were supposed to, while the latter suffered some inexplicable defeats.

In 2009, losses to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns kept the Steelers out of the playoffs when a win in one of those games would have given them a chance to defend their Super Bowl title.

Last season, the Steelers had similar bad losses to the Browns and Chargers, and those defeats doomed them to an 8-8 season.

Unless they reel off four-straight wins starting Dec. 8 against the visiting Dolphins, the Steelers might look back at the Vikings and Raiders losses with the most regret -- as disheartened as they were after dominating the Ravens in the fourth quarter Thursday night but falling short.

“I’m proud of the way we fought,” Roethlisberger said. “You never play a perfect game, and it’s frustrating when you feel like you can do more as a player to help your team win. It’s incredibly frustrating, because you get so close.”

He was talking about one game. Roethlisberger could have just as easily been talking about the season.