PITTSBURGH — Troy Polamalu didn’t want to talk about it.
His vintage, not to mention gravity-testing somersault into the end zone on a 19-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter turned momentum swiftly in Pittsburgh’s favor at snowy Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon. Then it was relegated to a mere footnote in a 34-28 defeat that all but sank whatever postseason hopes the Steelers were clinging to.
“What does it matter?” Polamalu said. “We lost.”
The game. The season. And maybe just the latest golden era of one of the NFL’s most successful franchises.
The Steelers (5-8) are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with three weeks remaining, the earliest they’ve been out of it since finishing 6-10 a decade ago. Three mostly meaningless games remain starting next weekend against Cincinnati, a stretch that could serve as a long goodbye for familiar faces who have a Super Bowl ring or two tucked away somewhere.
Though Polamalu remains under contract in 2014, fellow safety and close friend Ryan Clark is not. And the 34-year-old certainly sounded like he is eyeing the exit door after the Steelers allowed the Dolphins to go 80 yards in four plays to take the lead for good.
“Everybody’s time comes,” Clark said. “For me, I just want to enjoy it, keep playing.”
It’s a sentiment echoed throughout the locker room, one the Steelers have found themselves repeating far too often this fall. They did it during an 0-4 start. They did it after getting pounded in a record-setting loss to New England in late October.
They did it again Sunday while quietly dressing after a defeat that had all the hallmarks of a season that never seemed to get off the ground.
The defense allowed a trio of big plays, including a 55-yard run by Daniel Thomas that set up Charles Clay’s winning 12-yard touchdown with 2:53 to go. The offense committed penalties on consecutive snaps in the fourth quarter with the Steelers at midfield hoping to close it out. The special teams allowed a punt to be partially blocked and did little in the return game.
“We understood what was at stake in terms of us and this football game, specifically,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ll take responsibility for whatever transpires. We understand the gravity of these moments.”
And now Tomlin finds himself with one of the more pressing tasks of his still young coaching career: finding a way to keep focused a room full of guys used to playing for something this time of year.
Cornerback Ike Taylor insists it won’t be a problem even while allowing he is “frustrated” and “hurt” that the Steelers are assured of consecutive non-winning seasons for just the second time since 1986.
“When you’ve consistently been inconsistent? .500 record,” Taylor said.
Actually, that’s being generous. Pittsburgh needs to win its final three games to get back to break even, a daunting task considering the way the AFC North leading Bengals (9-4) are playing at the moment.
Cincinnati won the first meeting 20-10 back in Week 2. Not much has changed over the last three months. The Bengals remain young and hungry. The Steelers still look like they’re trying to figure it out.
Pittsburgh appeared on its way early against the Dolphins. Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell spearheaded a long touchdown drive that gave the Steelers an early lead. Yet Bell was largely invisible in the second half, carrying the ball just five times.
When pressed on why Bell wasn’t more involved, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suggested talking to offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Roethlisberger has never been through a losing season in his life. Not in high school, not in college at Miami (Ohio) and not in 10 seasons with the Steelers. It’s a personal point of pride for the two-time Super Bowl winner, one he expects his teammates to hold close to their hearts too.
“We are just going to give it everything we have every day,” Roethlisberger said. “There isn’t going to be any quit from anybody.”