MIAMI - This Steelers season turned out to be a colossal disappointment.
When they left Denver with a 6-2 record Nov. 9, the Steelers were playing like one of the five best teams in the NFL. They had won five games in a row, including victories over the Vikings and Chargers.
Every black and gold fan surely had hopes of winning a second straight Super Bowl.
To go from that to missing the playoffs is as ridiculous as it is unbelievable.
"We've got a singular goal every year, and that's to be world champs," coach Mike Tomlin said after Sunday's win over Miami.
To fall short of that goal is one thing, but to give away an opportunity to even defend the title is another. And that's what the Steelers did - they gave away this season with fourth-quarter meltdowns, dreadful secondary play and embarrassing special teams performances.
They finished 9-7 and lost to three of the NFL's worst teams - Chiefs, Raiders, Browns - during a head-scratching five-game skid.
Given all those elements, one thing was clear even before kickoff Sunday: The Steelers didn't deserve to make the playoffs.
Sure, they had a chance to sneak in with lots of help, but the players saw that alone as frustrating.
"It's just disappointing because we shouldn't be in this position," receiver Hines Ward said.
"It's frustrating, but what can you do?" Ward added. "We can't turn back the hands of time and go back and wish you can change the outcome of some of the games that we played in."
It's remarkable, looking back on it, that a squad with all this talent lost to some of the teams it did.
"We got in a slump, we got in a hole that we probably won't be able to get out of, and it looks bad right now," linebacker James Farrior said. "Losing five straight, that will kill anything, any part of a good season that you thought you had going."
Tomlin's promise that his team would "unleash hell" in December looked silly after losses to the Raiders and Browns, but the Steelers did figure some things out with three straight wins to close the season.
Still, even Tomlin said that wasn't good enough.
"I'm not interested in correcting problems," he said. "I'm interested in pursuing Lombardis and hopefully winning them. We're not in the tourney, that's not us."
There was hope the team could have made another great playoff run, similar to the 2005 season, had it been able to sneak in. But that never seemed likely given all the problems and safety Troy Polamalu's knee injury.
Anything can happen in the crazy NFL, but the Steelers probably would have been one and done anyway had they backed into the playoffs.
So, one year after Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger provided one of the great finishes in Super Bowl history, the Steelers find themselves struggling to figure out how this letdown happened.
"A lot of teams play this game for one reason - to make it to the Super Bowl," Holmes said.
The Steelers are one of those teams.
Eight weeks ago it appeared they had a good shot to get there and repeat, so to be on the outside of the playoffs looking in is nothing short of a failure.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.