By Joe Starkey
Published: Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, 10:45 p.m.
The Steelers haven't played the Green Bay Packers since Feb. 6, 2011. You might remember. The Steelers who participated never will forget.
They lost the Super Bowl that night, and most anyone who has lost the Super Bowl will tell you: The pain lasts. It lurks. The ache is like a deep longing to fix something that cannot be fixed, to find something that cannot be found.
This is what New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins said when the New York Giants beat his team for a second time on the NFL's biggest stage: “I've lost a lot of games in my career, but nothing hurts like losing a Super Bowl.”
This is what Steelers tight end Heath Miller said Thursday, reflecting on his team's 31-25 loss in Super Bowl XLV: “You always look at it as an opportunity lost. I don't think we'll ever be OK with losing the Super Bowl.”
Ben Roethlisberger still can't talk about it much.
His stated goal, since he came into the league, was to win five Super Bowls — one more than Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. Losing that one put a serious crimp in his plans.
Roethlisberger was asked about the game during his session with local reporters:
Reporter: “Have you thought about the Super Bowl since?”
Q: “Not even this week?”
A: “Nope (smiles).”
Q: “Not even looking at film?”
Q: “Are you lying right now?”
A: “Maybe (laughs). How do you not (think about it)? The Green Bay media asked me, ‘What do you remember?' I said, ‘Losing.' That's all that matters. That's all you remember from a game like that.”
It's impossible to calculate the emotional toll of advancing so far only to fall short. Maybe there's a reason no losing team has come back to win the following year's Super Bowl since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Maybe there's a reason none has so much as returned to play in the next year's game since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.
On the other hand, players all over the league would love the chance to lose a Super Bowl. Jerricho Cotchery has played nine NFL seasons without advancing past the conference championship game. He can only imagine the Super Sunday scene. And often has.
“I've had that vision so many times. I want that to happen,” Cotchery said. “We'll see. I've heard the horror stories, though, of the teams that lose.”
The second-largest crowd (103,219) in Super Bowl history packed Jerry Jones' palace on Feb. 6, 2011. Approximately 111 million more watched on television to make it the most-viewed show in American TV history. Pittsburgh native Christina Aguilera mangled the national anthem. The Black Eyed Peas performed at halftime, and Roethlisberger got the ball with two minutes left and a chance to win.
“We thought we had it,” recalled guard Ramon Foster.
The drive fizzled fast. The images of the day did not. For many fans, the primary one would be of Rashard Mendenhall fumbling on the first play of the fourth quarter, with the Steelers poised to take the lead.
I asked several Steelers players for an image that stands out. Here's a sampling:
• Antonio Brown: “I just remember, after the game, the confetti raining down and seeing Hines Ward sitting on the bench.”
• Ziggy Hood: “Just standing next to my teammates when it was time to go out on the field.”
• Foster: “That stadium. What a great venue for the Super Bowl, a big show, a great environment.”
• Troy Polamalu: “I just remember thinking how hard it was to get there. I also remember thinking, ‘There's always two sides to every coin.' You know, there's winners and losers. Thankfully, I've been on the winning side more often. But (losing) gives you the proper respect for the nature of competition.”
Beyond that sort of painfully earned perspective, beyond the pain itself, you wonder if the game had larger significance. Did it mark the beginning of the end of a hugely successful Steelers era?
It sure looks that way. The Steelers are about to complete a third straight season without a playoff win, something that has not happened since 2000.
Certainly, the game and its aftermath point to the ever-changing nature of professional football. The Steelers have retained just 22 of the 53 players on their roster that night. Each team has just eight of the same starters. The Packers, although they came within six points of going 16-0 the next season, have won just a single playoff game since beating the Steelers.
It's hard to get there, harder to lose. But the primary reason to play pro football — besides money, of course — is to reach the biggest game of all.
“Once you get a taste,” Miller said, “nothing else really satisfies you.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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