PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers’ odds of making the playoffs were of the hit-the-lottery variety even before play started Sunday. They only increased after the Miami Dolphins held off a late rally to beat the New England Patriots and lengthen the list of what needs to happen for the Steelers to sneak into the playoffs, a list that is now longer than Troy Polamalu’s hair.
Against this backdrop and on a frigid night when an angry wind cut like a bad breakup, the Steelers seemed ripe for anything but what transpired at half-empty Heinz Field.
But in a season that has made little sense, it made perfect sense that the Steelers turned in their most inspired performance of 2013.
They clobbered the Cincinnati Bengals early and owned a quarter in which they had all too often been dominated this season. The Steelers, who had scored 43 points in the first quarter in 13 previous games, put up nearly half that total in the first 15 minutes Sunday night.
They dazed the Bengals with a three-touchdown barrage, and looked like the team playing for a first-round bye in the playoffs, not the one that is guaranteed back-to-back non-winning seasons for the first time since the late 1990s.
Cincinnati never recovered from the role reversal that left the Steelers with a sense of satisfaction, if not at all closer to the playoffs, following a 30-20 win.
“When you get the question a lot during the week -- 'What do you have to play for?' -- I think people are kind of looking for you to maybe have an opportunity to come out flat, and we didn’t do that and I’m excited about that for this team,” Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. “I’m excited about that for the leaders and also for the young guys. To see the people come out and compete the way that they did when seemingly to the outside world we had nothing to play for, it was good for us.”
It also had to leave the Steelers wondering what might have been had they put together more all-around performances like the one they used to flatten the Bengals.
Five of the Steelers’ eight losses this season were by a touchdown or less. Their two most recent setbacks were by a combined eight points.
As much as injuries decimated the offensive line and breakdowns unmasked a once-fearsome defense, the Steelers are only a handful of plays from being 9-5 instead of 6-8. Among the what-ifs for the Steelers this season:
What if they hadn’t forgotten how to tackle against the Minnesota Vikings in London?
What if Shaun Suisham, who has been as automatic as a kicker can be, hadn’t missed a pair of chip shots in a three-point loss in Oakland?
What if Emmanuel Sanders had hung onto the two-point conversion pass in Baltimore?
What if the defense had protected a fourth-quarter lead against Miami instead of yielding a late 55-yard run to a backup running back who was playing on a bad knee?
“We can’t woulda, coulda, shoulda,” veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said.
Clark delivered a similar message after the Steelers improved to 6-8 by building the early 21-point lead and then holding off the Bengals.
“The NFL won’t give us an opportunity to go back and play those games over,” Clark said. “You don’t get the Tennessee Titans game back. You don’t get the Oakland Raiders game back, games that you feel like you should have won going in and also could have made plays to win the game.”
Clark talked in front of his locker, still clad in his entire uniform save for the helmet. Maybe the 12-year veteran wanted to bask in the win as long as possible, as it came in what could be his penultimate game in a Steelers uniform at Heinz Field.
Clark will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and he is one of a handful of veterans who are viable candidates to be playing their last game with the Steelers on Dec. 29.
Maybe that reality, the likelihood that more turnover is coming to a team that had been able to resist it for so long, is why Steelers players did not collectively look too deep into the win against the Bengals. They simply wanted to enjoy the respite from what has been an incredibly frustrating season.
Perhaps they didn't want to think about how much they had squandered before putting together their most complete performance of the season.
There will be plenty of time for that after the season is over. The Steelers showed Sunday night that they are serious about finishing strong, even if 8-8 is unlikely to get them anything beyond the distinction of a non-losing season.
“I’ve said for a bunch of weeks now that there’s going to be no quit from me. I think tonight was a good example of that,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Everyone fought hard from start to finish. We just wanted to come out and show we’re going to give it everything we’ve got to the end.”