Sunday nightís 29-23 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC wild-card playoffs left the Pittsburgh Steelers stunned and devastated. But amid the sudden end to their 2011 was a stark reality: They probably didnít have enough good, healthy bodies to make it much further, anyway.
Already without center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) and running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee), the Steelers lost defensive end Brett Keisel (groin) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (knee) to first-half injuries against the Broncos.
And quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasnít been full strength since spraining his left ankle in Week 14 against the Browns.
Roethlisberger seemed to understand that the Steelers had been doing it with mirrors for a few weeks, barely getting by the Browns in two late-season meetings, and overcoming a 20-6 deficit to force overtime against the 8-8 Broncos, who had lost their final three regular-season games.
Roethlisberger ignored his own injury on a few late runs, and said afterward he was far from the only Steeler playing with pain.
"Adrenaline does some crazy things," Roethlisberger said. "You want to be there for your guys. You want to show them itís about heart, and thatís what we did. We had a lot of guys do that (Sunday). Itís unfortunate we came out on the wrong end."
Coach Mike Tomlinís mantra is that the Steelers donít make excuses for injuries.
The next man steps in and the goals remain the same. But the pile of battered bodies reached the point by halftime Sunday night that the Steelers were playing a defensive line of Ziggy Hood, second-year reserve Steve McLendon and rookie Cameron Heyward against the best running quarterback in the league.
No Steeler pointed directly at injuries as the reason for Sundayís loss. Maybe thatís because they know too well how dangerous a wounded team can be. The Green Bay Packers, with 15 players on injured reserve last season, reached the Super Bowl and beat the Steelers despite losing All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson and starting receiver Donald Driver to first-half injuries at Cowboys Stadium.
In addition to the rest, safety Ryan Clark missed Sundayís game not because of injury, but because of a sickle-cell trait that Tomlin felt jeopardized his health by playing in Denverís high altitude.
"Itís a different feeling," Clark said of the Steelersí first-round exit, their second in five seasons under Tomlin. "Definitely a feeling of incompletion and dissatisfaction. I feel like we left a lot (unfinished) this year as a whole."
As long as Roethlisberger is around, the window for championships will remain open for the Steelers, but this seasonís injuries seem to have robbed them of a good chance at another title.
It remains to be
seen whether Mendenhall can make it back by the beginning of training camp after whatís expected to be major offseason surgery.
Backup Isaac Redman rushed for 127 yards Sunday after gaining 92 against the Browns in Week 17, but heís not considered an every-down back because he lacks top-end speed.
Two other veterans of multiple Super Bowl runs -- receiver Hines Ward and defensive end Aaron Smith -- face uncertain futures.
Asked if the current group of Steelers has another championship in them, safety Troy Polamalu paused before answering.
"God willing," Polamalu said. "Itís tough to say right now, but weíre very talented and we have a lot of young guys, so we have a good mix of experience. Time will tell."
It became clear a few weeks ago that this might not be the season the Steelers won the seventh Super Bowl title theyíve sought since beating the Arizona Cardinals in Tampa at the end of the 2008 season.
The team that frustrated Tom Brady [stats] and stuffed the Patriots [team stats]í offense in a 25-17 victory in Week 8 at Heinz Field was a shell of itself by Sunday. Even if they had managed to hold off the Broncos, the Steelers seemed to be in no position to do that again Saturday night in Foxborough.
Still, asked Sunday night if things might have been different had the Steelers not seen so many players go down, Tomlin was unwavering.
"You know better than that," Tomlin said. "We donít live in that world."
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