By Rob Rossi
Chaz Palla | Trib Total MediaThe Steelers' Brice McCain, Mike Mitchell, B.W. Webb and Antwon Blake sit on the bench at the end of the AFC wild-card game Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Maddening until the very end. That's what these Steelers were. They could look unstoppable, but lesser opponents tripped them once too often.
That is important to remember in the wake of a disappointing playoff loss Saturday night. Unforgivable regular-season losses to Tampa Bay and New Orleans at home and on the road against the New York Jets forced the Steelers into a wild-card game against the Baltimore Ravens.
Win those games — and the Buccaneers, Saints and Jets combined for only two more victories than the Steelers' 11 — and stud running back Le'Veon Bell would have had a bye week to rest his hyper-extended knee.
Bell's injury might have doomed these Steelers, but his rise to ranks of NFL elite was the catalyst for their return to the playoffs after an absence of two seasons.
He's coming back. So are his fellow All-Pro teammates, wide receiver Antonio Brown and center Maurkice Pouncey. And Ben Roethlisberger, the franchise quarterback who found his peak powers in his 11th season, will have an even better offense to play around with next season.
The future for coach Mike Tomlin, who like Roethlisberger should get a new contract this offseason (throw in one for general manager Kevin Colbert, too), looks bright.
Still, the loss Saturday night will sting for days — likely weeks — and maybe a month or two. The opponent will have something to do with that, because Baltimore makes for a rival unlike any the Steelers have known over the past three decades.
More than any NFL franchise, the Ravens have stolen from the Steelers' blueprint for success. And right now, anyway, they are better in the critical areas of defense, toughness and knowing how to win the important games.
It is no coincidence that the Steelers had to go through the Ravens to reach their last two Super Bowls. But the Steelers are 0-2 in the playoffs since they last played for the Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens have won one Super Bowl, lost in the AFC title game and missed the postseason only once over that span.
Aside from New England, there is no more consistent AFC franchise than the one in Baltimore.
Whatever mental edge the Steelers had over the Ravens is gone for good after Saturday night. The Ravens had lost three previous playoff games at Heinz Field.
Coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco had been around for two of those.
With this victory in the biggest game contested between these teams in four years, Harbaugh and Flacco have won six of the past nine against the Steelers, including three of five on the road.
Bell might have made a difference Saturday night, especially in the first half.
There, the Steelers ran 17 more plays and held a possession advantage of almost 12 minutes. But the Steelers settled for three field goals. The Ravens scored a touchdown, and it came after a most disappointing series for the Steelers' defense.
That Ravens' scoring drive started at their 20-yard line, but a stupid unnecessary roughness penalty by safety Mike Mitchell set a tone for what would become Baltimore's pivotal drive.
Mitchell didn't have to go high on a double-covered Jacoby Jones. He did. He paid, and the Steelers will have a long offseason to wonder if their investment in Mitchell was wise.
He was not very good this season.
He'll need to be much better over the final four years of his contract because he is likely the best among a weak supporting cast in the secondary.
Troy Polamalu probably played his last game on Saturday night. If so, he was in many ways unlike any defensive back this franchise has known, and it has known many good ones and a couple of Hall of Famers in Mel Blount and Rod Woodson.
Polamalu will follow those all-time Steelers into Canton. In his prime, he was a whirling, unpredictable menace, a freakish combination of athleticism and instinct, a game-changing performer who elevated Dick LeBeau's 3-4 zone-blitz defense into a scheme for the ages.
Finding his replacement will not prove easy, if possible at all.
Still, the Steelers must find a couple of playmakers for their defense. Maybe two promising linebackers, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, will become this generation's version of Greg Lloyd and James Farrior.
Neither played much because of injuries, and their early career growth has at least been stunted.
There is no next Casey Hampton on the current roster, and finding that kind of blocker-eating, run-stuffing nose tackle should be priority No. 1 for Colbert.
LeBeau's scheme needs an immovable object to make it an irresistible force.
Find that guy, and a lot of defensive problem areas will be masked. Lesser opponents will be beaten.
And rubber matches in the playoffs against the Ravens may be avoided.
Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/robrossi/7465525-74/steelers-ravens-game#ixzz3NrwFRH1j
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