It's been fun recapping the 2016 season. For the last nine weeks, I've had the pleasure of talking about win after win for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Unfortunately that all came crashing down with the final 2016 recap: the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.
I know many of us are still disappoint and frustrated with the result. Rewatching the game, I myself still feel cheated. I feel robbed through several small stories which occurred during the game. There was the loss of Le'Veon Bell to injury. There were the small drops which killed drives. The penalty on Ryan Shazier which extended a Patriots drive to a Tom Brady hurry-up on 3rd and 1, in which the replay booth somehow didn't the New England QB fumble.
Then there was the subsequent Steelers drive where Eli Rogers fumbled as well, handing a gift to their opposition with a short field to score on.
It wasn't all "could've, would've, should've". The Patriots took advantage of Steelers safety Sean Davis coming off of the field for a play, where his replacement left a wide-open Chris Hogan in the end zone for a touchdown. Hogan would also exploit Pittsburgh's defense with a perfectly executed flea-flicker for another TD, while the Steelers missed an extra point, failed to cross the goal line with the ball on the Patriots one-yard line, and turned the ball over twice in the second half (which doesn't include a third turnover, on downs in the red zone).
The evening was all about the Steelers making errors and the Patriots not only capitalizing on them but executing on all cylinders. New England jumped out to a 10-0 lead early, and rather than the Steelers striking first, or striking much at all, the Patriots ended up on the right side of a shootout.
When it as all said and done, the game didn't end with the result Steelers Nation wanted. Each of us was ready to book our flights to Houston but that didn't happen. Being in the conference championship game isn't usually a good way to wrap a bow on the season. The Steelers wanted more. We wanted more. Yet, some credit is due. Mike Tomlin took a 4-5 team and got them on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
Someone is going to say I'm crazy for mentioning that but hear me out: this was a team that had to call up players from the practice squad and rely on relative unknowns all season. Jesse James wasn't projected to be a starting tight end: Ladarius Green was signed in free agent to be the starter. Defensive captain Cam Heyward was lost to injury and Bud Dupree missed more than half of the season on injured reserve himself. Ben Roethlisberger was throwing to Cobi Hamilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey instead of Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Eli Rogers was a second-year undrafted receiver who never played a regular season snap until September of 2016. Le'Veon Bell missed several games early on due to suspension.
The offensive line fit an undrafted B.J. Finney into different roles for Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster while a lineman who had rarely played tackle in his college career, Chris Hubbard, not only excelled as a starter but carved a niche as the extra man in the Steelers jumbo package.
There were also the various shifts that Sean Davis, Vince Williams, Jordan Dangerfield, L.T. Walton, and Ricardo Mathews played throughout the season. The secondary also featured a rookie (Artie Burns) and a project (Ross Cockrell).
None of that sounds like a championship contender but somehow the Steelers ended up in the AFC title game. Yet, at the end of the day, Bill Belichick gets all of the credit for being a great coach because Mike Tomlin's squad didn't get over the hump. I'm not saying Belichick, whose team won the Super Bowl, doesn't deserve recognition. But I'm also saying that Mike Tomlin made a gourmet meal out of deli items with what he was handed throughout the 2016 season. He didn't make excuses nor did the Steelers. For them, the "Standard is the Standard".
And that means we should be in for a wild ride this upcoming 2017 season.
Plays of the Game
You didn't think I'd honestly show a Patriots play here, right?
This one is a little bittersweet since it's likely the final touchdown DeAngelo Williams will score as a Steeler: and possibly his last one in the NFL, should he remained unsigned this season.
Williams was thrust into action following Bell's injury in the first quarter and made the most of his opportunity by steaming ahead on this 3rd and 1, where he got more than the single yard he needed to keep Pittsburgh's drive alive.