PITTSBURGH (AP) – Mike Tomlin walked past what might have been nearly every day.
Inevitably the Pittsburgh Steelers coach would catch a glimpse of one of his team’s injured stars in the trainer’s room, where center Maurkice Pouncey and running back Le’Veon Bell were fixtures as they rehabbed from season-ending injuries.
Recently the two stars were joined by DeAngelo Williams and Antonio Brown, both of whom were unavailable for Sunday’s playoff loss at Denver with health issues of their own.
And yet Tomlin – as is his wont – refused to get into a game of “what if” after the Steelers came tantalizingly close to a spot in the AFC championship game anyway. That doesn’t mean it was so easy for his players.
The offensive skill position core of Brown, Bell, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton played all of 14 snaps together.
Pouncey missed the entire season with an injured ankle and left tackle Kelvin Beachum went down in mid-October with torn knee ligaments.
Still, Pittsburgh went 11-7 and finished third in the league in total offense, numbers that may have been even gaudier with a little luck.
“Yeah (you think about it) but I don’t know in the years that I’ve played, probably not many years that that roster, that the starting 11 guys you start Game 1 with or training camp with is there at the end,” tight end Heath Miller said. “It’s how you deal with (the injuries) and I feel like this team dealt with them time and time again.”
Just not quite well enough to extend a season that mixed brilliance with blah, often in the same game.
The final 60 minutes of the season were no different. Pittsburgh took a lead into the fourth quarter on the road against the AFC’s No. 1 seed before a fumble by fourth-string running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and a throwback drive by Peyton Manning gave the Broncos just enough momentum to advance.
Toussaint took responsibility for the mistake. Not that his teammates wanted to hear it.
“Everybody has their (poor) moment,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “For someone to say they haven’t had a (poor) moment, that means they haven’t competed. We wouldn’t be here if (Toussaint) didn’t step up in Cleveland. We wouldn’t be here if he didn’t step up in Cincinnati.”
The tears that fell so freely during a subdued locker room on Sunday had dried by Monday.
Though there will not be an seventh Lombardi Trophy added to the team’s already crowded display, there remains plenty of optimism after the franchise’s first playoff win since the 2010 AFC championship.
“I can’t wait until next year, hopefully I’m here,” said cornerback William Gay, who will become a free agent. “It’s going to be one heck of a ride in 2016.”
Some things to look for – and look back on – after a season that began with the Steelers playing in the first game ended three weeks short of them playing in the last one too.
AIR RAID: Despite facing near constant double teams, Brown tied for the NFL lead with 136 receptions while making his fourth Pro Bowl. His 375 grabs since the start of 2013 are the most by a receiver over a three-year stretch. Yet just as encouraging was the play by the rest of the group with Brown sidelined for the Denver game with a concussion. The Steelers still managed 339 yards passing against the league’s top-ranked defense.
“It’s not like there was a glaring issue offensively,” Roethlisberger said.
SPLASH BROTHERS: Defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s first year on the job was largely a success. Tasked with producing more “splash” plays, Pittsburgh finished third in sacks (48) and turnovers forced (30). Seven of the takeaways came in the red zone, a saving grace for a secondary that gave up a torrent of yards.
“We had guys at the beginning of the season that were question marks,” Heyward said. “I thought we answered it.”
HOLD THE LINE?: There are 17 players who will become unrestricted free agents in March, including Beachum and guard Ramon Foster. Beachum declined to talk about his future while Foster joked his main job will be to stay out of trouble. The 30-year-old has become the de-facto leader of one of the league’s best lines.
“He’s huge,” All-Pro guard David DeCastro said. “He’s such a leader. There’s a lot of things you don’t see off the field that he does.”
DECISION TIME: James Harrison proved to have plenty of life left in his 37-year-old legs, ending the 13th year of his career with six tackles and a sack of Manning on Sunday. Though he’s under contract for next season, Harrison will take his time before figuring out if he’s got enough juice left for one more run.
“I’m not a reflective type of person,” Harrison said when asked to describe his season. “It’s over with. Move on. Get prepared for whatever comes next. Right now I don’t know what that is.”
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