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Steelers Can Bow Out Of Playoffs With Heads Held High

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ improbable run through the NFL playoffs came to an end this week at the hands of Peyton Manning and his elite Denver defense. Regardless, the team can feel immensely proud of its efforts in the face of adversity this season, and look ahead to a very promising future.

As was the case in seemingly every Steelers game in 2015, Pittsburgh entered this matchup bruised and battered, yet managed to stay competitive for three quarters.

In addition to the long absences of All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and malleable running back Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers were without ageless workhorse DeAngelo Williams and the league’s best receiver in Antonio Brown. Oh, and Ben Roethlisberger sucked it up and played hurt (again), this time nursing a sprained AC joint in his shoulder.

To get an idea of just how sapped of offensive weaponry the Steelers were, the team set an NFL record no team will be keen to break anytime soon. Pittsburgh was the only team in league history to start a playoff game minus its leading rusher and leading receiver.

Through the week, Mike Tomlin said his “next man up” philosophy was “just words”, and that it was up to the players to give meaning to the phrase. Enter Martavis Bryant and Fitzgerald Toussaint.

The former played like a legitimate number one receiver in Brown’s absence, making 9 catches for over 150 yards against the Broncos’ stingy secondary. Since being “challenged” by his quarterback before the start of the playoffs, Bryant has risen to the task in clutch moments.

The latter played his ring off even when nobody gave the Steelers running game a snowball’s chance in hell this postseason. Toussaint may have conceded the game-changing fumble, but there is only so much blame you can place on a fourth-string running back in the face of a brilliant defensive play.

Clearly in a bad place after the game, Toussaint seemed strangely set on making himself the scapegoat, but his teammates were having none of it. Ben Roethlisberger said he was “proud of the way [Toussaint] played,” and that the team “wouldn’t have gotten this far without him.”

Ultimately, it was not one lone man who cost the Steelers this very winnable game. Generally poor field position, a failure to convert promising drives into points, an inability to force that one huge turnover that Pittsburgh’s oft-maligned defense had come to rely on; they all played their part in sending the Steelers home.

This time last year, the Arizona Cardinals resembled a Division II college team entering the playoffs. Many pundits declared the team needed one complete season to be a force in the NFL. One year later, and Carson’s Cardinals are arguably the most complete team left in the league’s four-horse race for the Lombardi. Perhaps the Steelers can be 2016’s Cardinals. Only time – and the football gods – will tell.

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