Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots throws a pass during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Save raw emotion from a few, Steelers players discussed the 36-17 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots with the same sterile, business-like approach that their opponent used to dissect them.
They politely accepted and explained the thorough defeat, then swiftly moved on to the team bus.
The Steelers improved on their 2015 record by adding two more wins and went 70 days between losses -- a resurgent season 28 other teams gladly would have taken.
But the Patriots problem won't dissipate just because Brady is almost 40 years old. The Patriots are on the 2017 schedule once again and figure to be in the way come January, too.
Sunday's presence in the conference title game was a realization of how close and how far the Steelers really are. All the momentum and locker-room buzz from a nine-game winning streak can't extinguish Brady's unreal success against them.
That's 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions for Brady in his past seven matchups against Pittsburgh, haunting numbers that must be settled.
"I'm not ready to paint with a broad brush -- 2016 is over for us," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We'll start just like everybody else."
When he does start, Tomlin should take a hard look at how his improving, yet suddenly humbled, defense can create pressure on Brady and tighten coverage.
There's something about the Steelers' three-man rush and their zone coverages that Brady just loves, and the Steelers must make him un-love it by finding creative ways to knock him down, maybe playing more man coverage as a result.
Even a 2017 return from 38-year-old James Harrison -- he told reporters "I'm not done" from his locker -- won't thwart the Steelers' struggles with Brady's no-huddle attack, which dizzied Pittsburgh's defense as it tried to get calls in too late.
Tomlin said the Steelers tried to blitz, but the efforts weren't effective. Even so, the coverage struggles that allowed Chris Hogan's 180-yard day were brutal to watch.
Players cited the usual when things go poorly -- not following through on technique to keep receivers in front of them, getting pass deflections and making tackles swiftly. Then, cornerback Artie Burns had a real moment.
"I don't want to go out like that [again]," Burns said.
The Steelers' defense had given up less than 17 points per game dating to Week 11. But the Patriots simply bring out the worst in these Steelers, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt seemed to understand that as he got emotional after the game.
"We have to use this to get better," said Tuitt, holding back tears. "We can be a dominant team. ... We will cross that line."
Ben Roethlisberger recorded his fifth straight 300-yard game against New England, but finishing drives on the road has become an issue for the passing game. In 2016, the Steelers had two road passing games of more than one touchdown through the air. Cleaning that up in 2017 will be a priority. The presence of Martavis Bryant will help.
Cobi Hamilton and Sammie Coatescan be nice role players, but the lack of an established No. 2 receiver on the outside was glaring at the worst time.
Roethlisberger said he was disappointed the Steelers couldn't win this game for team Chairman Dan Rooney.
"Hopefully this is a learning game for guys. This isn't promised to anybody," Roethlisberger said. "Just to make the playoffs isn't enough. I hope that they understand the importance and relish the opportunity."
The Steelers have a speedy core on defense and arguably one of the game's best trios in Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
Until they can hit Brady consistently, making a fourth Super Bowl game since 2005 will continue to feel like a distant goal.