PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers have finished other seasons with a meaningless game.
But not like this.
The Steelers will end the 2012 season with this Sunday's home game against Cleveland, the result of being eliminated from playoff contention by Sunday's 13-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.
In past years, the Steelers have closed with a game that didn't matter because their playoff position had been secured and was immune from the final regular season game.
This time, they know they're packing to go home after the 16th game.
"You play to get the opportunity to win the Super Bowl," safety Ryan Clark said. "And when that is gone, it's a tough reality, especially when you're one of the teams that expects to play for it every year."
There's also a sense that some of the experienced players won't be back. The Steelers face contract decisions on a number of high profile players, including linebacker James Harrison, nose tackle Casey Hampton, running back Rashard Mendenhall and receiver Mike Wallace.
The team has been in transition, with veterans Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke all departing after last season.
The turnover will continue, but the expectation of success will, too.
"I don't worry about next year," Clark said. "I barely got through today to worry about tomorrow. When you win, you can make everything rainbows and pots of gold. For us, we didn't get it done."
The Steelers can finish no better than 8-8, and need to beat Cleveland to avoid their first losing season since 2003 and second in the last 13 years.
This is the second time the Steelers have failed to reach the playoffs in Mike Tomlin's six seasons as head coach.
"It hurts bad not going to the playoffs," cornerback Keenan Lewis said. "We're going to be home with the rest of them, watching."
Cornerback Cortez Allen said, "We have work to do. We have things to work on, like how we prepare and execute. We will continue to grow."
Shaun Suisham came into the game having missed just one field goal attempt all season.
He missed twice Sunday in a game that ended up being decided by three points.
Suisham's first miss was from 24 yards at the closed end of Heinz Field. Greg Warren's snap was off the mark, which disrupted the timing. When holder Drew Butler put the ball down, Suisham ended up kicking it on the laces. Tomlin said the low kick was tipped by a defensive player, and the ball was wide left.
"It stabilized, but it wasn't going to go in anyway," Suisham said.
The second miss came late in the game from 53 yards to the open end of the stadium. Suisham's career best is 52 yards. His kick was accurate, but fell short.
"It's my job to make every single one and that's what I strive for," he said. "When it doesn't happen, obviously, I accept it and I should have been better. I should make a field goal."
The miss gave the Bengals the ball on their 43. Tomlin said he didn't consider punting to pin the Bengals deep.
"We've got a great deal of confidence in Shaun and rightfully so," Tomlin said. "We wanted to give him an opportunity to do the job."
Suisham said he was ready for that challenge and embraced it. He didn't think the kick was beyond his range.
"I missed," he said. "I should have made it. I knew it was going to be close. That's, unfortunately, part of being a kicker in this league. Everything I do is to prepare to be perfect. And when it doesn't happen, it is a tough one to take, especially this late in the year when it could have been the difference in the game and our season."
Suisham has won several games for the Steelers this season with late kicks. He couldn't deliver this time, and it bothered him.
"Everything I do goes into making that kick," he said. "It's been a long year. A lot of preparations go into that. I failed."
No party zone
Defensive end Brett Keisel had just sacked quarterback Andy Dalton and was heading off the field, having forced the Bengals into a fourth-and-15 on their first possession.
He celebrated as he always marks a sack, dropping to one knee and miming an archer firing an arrow.
This time, though, that action drew a flag and a 15-yard penalty for going to the ground for a celebration. That's one of the components of the NFL rules against excessive celebrations.
"They told me I can't go to my knee and can't shoot a weapon," Keisel said. "I told them I've been doing that for 11 years and no one ever said anything. It would have been nice to get that info before the game."
What a relief
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis acknowledged the burden his dubious strategy put on his team.
"I told them thanks for bailing me out, plain, flat and simple," Lewis said. "I made decisions to try to win the game. It kind of backfired on me."
The victory put the Bengals in the playoffs as a wild card entrant. They're in the postseason for a second consecutive season. The last time they qualified for the playoffs two straight years was 1981-82 under coach Forrest Gregg.
"It's a big win for the city of Cincinnati," Lewis said. "I know they just think that there's some complex. There's no complex. You just have to come to play and win. This group in there has very little history of anything. You play football out here every 60 minutes, their guys against our guys. That's what it comes down to."
Quarterback Andy Dalton said past Bengals failures are ancient history to the current group of players.
"We come in and we expect to get to the playoffs," Dalton said. "We are in the right position at the end of the season. You want to be in position to control your own destiny, and we were able to do that this year. And now it's time to really make a run at it."
Bengals receiver A.J. Green caught 10 passes for 116 yards, but said it was difficult to get anything done against the Steelers defense.
"It was a grind today," he said. "Pittsburgh is a great defense. They're number one in run-stopping, number one in pass-stopping, so we just went out there and played sound offense. Our defense played great, lights-out today so we made plays when we needed to."
One of those plays came in the last minute, a 25-yard reception that set up the game-winning field goal.
"It was just a corner route," Green said. "Andy laid the ball up there and I just tried to make the play, and we got it close enough for a field goal."
Defensive tackle Domata Peko said the Bengals made a particular emphasis of getting pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"That was our game plan," he said. "It seems like when you get pressure and rattle him early he tends to overthrow balls."
Bengals kicker Josh Brown was signed by Cincinnati on Dec. 6 after regular kicker Mike Nugent was injured.
Brown was with the St. Louis Rams last season, but was released. He went to camp with the New York Jets and didn't make the team. He was out of work until the Bengals called. That gave him the chance to settle a score with the Steelers.
"It's very satisfying, quite honestly," Brown said. "I've had some bad runs against Pittsburgh, including a bad game with the Rams last year, so really I just needed to exorcise some demons. It's a good Christmas."
Brown was with Seattle when the Steelers beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Brown was overheard saying, "That's for Super Bowl 40" as he left the field Sunday.
"That was my only opportunity to possibly win a Super Bowl," Brown said. "Now I get the opportunity to take something from them. That is something that's probably a small chip on my shoulder."
Oh so close
Sunday's loss was the Steelers' fifth this season by a margin of three points.
Other stats and streaks:
Roethlisberger has passed for 3,131 yards this season, his seventh consecutive season with at least 3,000 yards. However, his passer rating for the game was 58.6.
The Steelers were 2-for-14 on third down.