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 defense, we gave up too many points. And as a leader, as a leader of the defense, I failed, miserably; and you know, it’s tough to lose. It’s tough to lose guys in our locker room who have done great things on and off the field. And you know, that unknown just kills me. To squander an opportunity like that and to know we didn’t play our brand of football, and it sucks.”
Roethlisberger’s dismal first half — 20-of-30 passing for 177 yards and three interceptions — was an ugly echo of the first halves in the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Indianapolis Colts, when it seemed the future Hall of Famer lost his touch. Against the Colts, he found his groove for a comeback win in the second half. Against the Browns, it was too late.
“It wasn’t good enough,” Roethlisberger said of his performances. “When you lose a game like this, you can look back and evaluate all you want on the season, how you did during this game, that game, runs, stretches. I mean, at some point, we’ll look back on the whole thing.
“But when it doesn’t end the way you want it to, you’re always going to feel some kind of way, like you came up short or it’s your fault.”
The Steelers began surging after halftime on Sunday, outscoring the Browns 13-0. But Tomlin opted to play for field position and punt on fourth-and-1 from the 46 to open the fourth quarter, effectively halting his team’s momentum. The Browns scored on the ensuing drive to take a 42-23 lead.
“We had some stops, wanted to pin them down, maybe provide the short field for our offense,” Tomlin said. “We had maybe two or three consecutive stops. I just wanted to keep the momentum going in terms of field positioning. But we weren’t good enough in terms of doing that.”
With the loss, the Steelers have dropped three playoff games in a row, including a 2017 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, when Pittsburgh gave up 45 points to the visitors.
“It is what it is,” Tomlin said when asked about personal accountability for the postseason failures. “Our record is our record. Our performances are our performances. Don’t run away from that.”
Tomlin, who doesn’t have a losing regular season as the Steelers’ head coach, has just a .500 mark in the postseason.
“We didn’t perform well enough tonight,” he said. “Not coaching, not playing. You can chalk it up to the turnover game. But we weren’t good enough in a lot of other areas, communication, in terms of detail. Just not a good night for us. In the single-elimination tournaments, when you don’t have a good night, you go home.”
With the season over, Roethlisberger has a major decision looming. He has one year left on his contract worth $41.2 million, and he has said before that if he isn’t playing in a way that helps his team, he’ll “hang it up.”
After Sunday’s contest, though, Roethlisberger said he hadn’t made a decision about his future yet.
“It’s going to start between me and God, a lot of praying. A lot of talking with my family, discussions, decisions. I still have a year left on my contract,” he said. “I hope the Steelers want me back, if that’s the way we go. There will be a lot of discussions. But now is not the time for that.
“This loss is fresh. It’s just sitting on our hearts and our minds right now. It will for a while.”