PITTSBURGH - The Steelers players left the Heinz Field locker room, many for the final time, on Sunday with a renewed hope.
Three hours later, that hope, which several weeks ago seemed virtually impossible, came to a crushing end.
In an unlikely scenario, the same Steelers team that began the season 0-4 and was 2-6 at the midway point, was on the verge of clinching a playoff spot thanks in part to its 20-7 regular-season victory over the Cleveland Browns. But the San Diego Chargers survived a last-second game-winning field goal attempt and beat the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime to lock up the final AFC playoff berth and end the Steelers' 2013 season.
"It's nice to put ourselves in position for the playoffs,'' Steelers veteran Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu said after the Steelers finished the season with an 8-8 mark. "But it sucks that it depends on other people.''
The Chiefs had already clinched the No. 5 AFC seed and rested most of their starters against the Chargers. Their game meant everything to the Steelers after all of the other scenarios played out in favor of Pittsburgh in the early games Sunday - Cincinnati beat Baltimore, and the New York Jets defeated Miami.
The Chiefs held a 21-14 lead on San Diego at halftime, and with the game tied, 24-24, lined up for a game-winning 41-yard field goal at the end of regulation. But Ryan Succop's kick sailed wide right.
San Diego then won it in overtime on Nick Novak's 36-yard field goal after earlier converting on a fake punt. The Steelers' season was officially over at 7:40 p.m. Sunday.
"[If we don't make the playoffs], it's nobody's fault but ours,'' Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We got ourselves in a deep hole early. We knew that, and you knew that it was going to be tough getting out.''
The Steelers' season looked all but finished after a 55-31 humbling loss to New England on Nov. 3 to drop their record to 2-6. After three straight wins, their playoff chances were again on life support after a 22-20 loss in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night and a 34-28 loss to Miami at a snowy Heinz Field.
The Steelers, though, rallied with victories over Cincinnati and Green Bay before completing their 6-2 second half with their win over the 4-12 Browns on Sunday. Their strong finish made the final day relevant, unlike last season when they also finished 8-8.
"I think we did a good job of not focusing on the hole we dug ourselves,'' Polamalu said. "We kept focusing on the week-in and week-out battle, and that's why we [were] in this position.''
The Steelers wrapped up their season with a strong showing against their punching bags of the AFC North - they've now beaten the Browns 10 straight games at Heinz Field.
Roethlisberger threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery in the first quarter, and Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 90 yards on 20 carries, scored on a 5-yard run in the second quarter. Shaun Suisham added two field goals in the second half.
Antonio Brown capped off his superb season with nine receptions for 87 yards. He finished the year with 110 catches, two short of Hines Ward's team record.
The Pittsburgh defense created two turnovers, registered three sacks and stopped the Browns three times on fourth-down attempts. They kept Cleveland from scoring until 2 minutes, 55 seconds remained in the game.
"I'm proud of the group - their ability to stay singularly focused, to fight the fight that's in front of them and to put some of our past transgressions behind us, largely speaking,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Not only today, but over the second half of the season.''
An interesting offseason awaits the Steelers with several veterans, including safety Ryan Clark, defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood, linebacker Jason Worilds and receiver Emmanuel Sanders, becoming free agents. Other stars, like Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker LaMarr Woodley, could be salary cap casualties.
The uncertainty caused many of the Steelers to soak in the atmosphere at a rainy Heinz Field.
"This team gave me a chance - twice,'' Clark said. "Some of my best friends are here in Pittsburgh, and I won a Super Bowl here. I have nothing but great memories here.''
The finality of the season hadn't quite hit the players when they exited the locker room. Some of them, like Roethlisberger, were in a hurry to watch the Chiefs-Chargers game. Others had different plans - Clark was on his way to watch his son's championship basketball game.
But the general feeling was that of hope and accomplishment. They felt the way they ended the season could have propelled them to a long playoff run or at least given them momentum for the 2014 season.
"We are going to build on this whether we are going to build on it for next week or whether we are getting ready for next year,'' Roethlisberger said. "I think we have put together a good foundation.''