There are no moral victories. Not for a team making their third Super Bowl appearance in six seasons. The Steelers, able to overcome a shaky first half and two turnovers in the AFC Divisional game against the Ravens, couldn’t do it against the Packers. And, really, that was the difference.
A Big Ben first-quarter interception directly resulted in six points. Another pick near midfield led to another Green Bay touchdown, and the Rashard Mendenhall fumble in the second half completed the hat trick. Twenty-one points-off-turnovers later, and Pittsburgh had dug itself too deep a hole to climb out of.
That said, the early 14-0 deficit had me unconcerned; I had seen that movie before. (I felt less confident when the Packers were up 21-3.) Unlike the regular-season get-together with the Patriots, when it was clear two series in that the Steelers didn’t have a chance, I felt like both the offense and defense were more than capable against Green Bay. It’s just that after a forgettable first 30 minutes, the task became much harder.
And while the first-half Roethlisberger picks didn’t help, I was certain that the game would turn on Mike Tomlin’s third-quarter decision to try a 52-yard field goal following a Big Ben sack that set up 4th and 13. You punt there. Every time. The Packers’ offense had sputtered, the Steelers defense looked confident, and Po-Sweezy looked like, well, Po-Sweezy. Which is to say sweet but unconvincing.
Somehow the Steelers avoided that bullet, but Mendenhall’s fumble — on a drive where it looked like Pittsburgh would take the lead — all but sealed their fate.
It’s worth mentioning that despite the horrid first half, the Steelers had a chance to win it at the end. Think about that. Three turnovers that led to 21 Green Bay points and with 1:59 on the clock, Big Ben had the ball. He’s done more with less in the past. Just not this time.
Also: credit to JJ for first pointing out — anywhere — that the Legursky-Raji matchup was overblown. Upon first viewing, Dougie had an admirable effort and I think Ben was only sacked twice. The takeaway: a lot of the media bobbleheads and self-proclaimed experts don’t know what they’re talking about.
And hats off to Aaron Rodgers. If the Steelers’ Achilles heel was turnovers, the Packers suffered from a lot of dropped passes. But Rodgers threw a laser to Greg Jennings on the most important third down of the game, that penultimate drive that led to three points — and more importantly: only 119 seconds remaining on the clock. Still, despite his effort (which included three touchdowns), it’s not like he marched up and down the field, Tom Brady style. The Steelers frustrated him at times, and for two-thirds of the second half the Packers offense was non-existent.
In the end it didn’t matter. Those turnovers — a fluky pick-six, a Big-Ben forced throw and an “it was only a matter of time before Rashard coughed it up” back-breaker — mean that the Steelers are now six for eight in the Super Bowl.
There are no moral victories, but there is a silver lining. The postseason isn’t guaranteed and maybe Pittsburgh’s near-dynastic run ends tonight. I don’t think so, but you never know. Assuming there is a 2011 season, there’s plenty to look forward to. A young receiving corps led by Mike Wallace; a completely healthy offensive line that (God willing) includes Willie Colon, Max Starks, Maurkice Pouncey and Flozell Adams; and a quarterback who is hopefully a better human being. And, fingers crossed, another year of Dick LeBeau.
The uncertainty of the offseason begins now. Who knows what happens but if the NFL can’t manage something as simple as making sure that every Super Bowl ticket holder has a seat in the Jerry Dome, I don’t have much faith in the impending labor negotiations. In a perfect world, a deal will get done, the Steelers will select a guard and a cornerback early in the draft, and everybody will be healthy come August.
LeBeau has a saying: “Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.” Tonight, the bear won. It happens.