The storybook closed down hard on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff hopes Sunday evening.
When it looked like everything was going to fall in place for Pittsburgh, which faced 400:1 odds of making the postseason after a 34-28 loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 8, the San Diego Chargers dashed those dreams.
After the Steelers entered Sunday with a 5.5 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, they pieced together a 20-7 win over the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.
While that was going on, the New York Jets dropped the Miami Dolphins. Then, the Cincinnati Bengals’ win over the Baltimore Ravens – yes, the defending Super Bowl champions – went final.
That just left the Chiefs and the Chargers to decide the Steelers’ postseason fate.
The Chiefs, who gained nothing from a win and started 20 backups, even held a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
Those who were writing the team off and inquiring about how long it was until the Pittsburgh Pirates resumed play after the Dolphins loss were anxiously hoping for the Chiefs to hold on.
It didn’t quite work out like that.
San Diego overcame that deficit.
Then the Chargers dodged a bullet as Ryan Succop missed a 41-yard field goal try with 4 seconds remaining in regulation.
Then an apparent fumble on a fake punt try early in overtime was ruled to not be a fumble.
That benefited the Chargers immensely. San Diego eventually drove to a field goal and held off the Chiefs’ response drive.
San Diego moves on. Pittsburgh doesn’t.
Kind of frustrating when you think about all the help that the Steelers needed to even sniff the postseason when they were 5-8.
They received it all except for the final piece.
Even more frustrating when you consider the erratic play that led to an 0-4 start and a 2-6 mark at the season’s midway point.
The Steelers took care of their own business late.
A prime-time win against AFC North champion Cincinnati on Dec. 15 preceded a Dec. 22 win over Green Bay at Lambeau Field.
Then came the win over hapless Cleveland on Sunday.
Had they done that earlier in the season, the Chargers’ 27-24 win would have meant nothing aside from a nice ending to a 9-7 season in San Diego and hope for the future.
Now it means that the Chargers trek to Cincinnati to start a wide-open AFC playoff tournament where it’s conceivable that any of the six teams in the field have a shot at a Super Bowl berth.
That could have been Pittsburgh.
Even when the standard in Pittsburgh is Lombardi Trophy or bust, the Steelers’ finish was a tremendous testament to their resiliency.
Only one other team - San Diego in 1992 - had started 0-4 and made the playoffs.
The Chargers did it with a little more style than the Steelers would have, finishing that year on an 11-1 tear and winning the AFC West.
January may not seem right without the Steelers, but it’s the reality for a second straight winter.
Despite that, one could gather that the Steelers were somewhat pleased with their 6-2 finish, even if it didn’t end in a postseason berth.
“I feel like we gave it our all,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said after the Steelers’ win.
“You get what you put into it. Just to put a performance out there for our fans in the last game at Heinz Field and to get a win like that – a great team win – is beautiful.”
Even Ben Roethlisberger appreciated the finish after decreeing that the Steelers may have been the league’s worst team at 0-4 following a loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 29 in London.
“I’m really proud of what has happened,” Roethlisberger said.
“We started 0-4 and things aren’t looking so good. And we have one of the worst records in football. Guys continued to fight and never quit. I will look at satisfaction as happy and proud of the fight and no one quitting.”
Now comes the part where the Steelers could make some difficult personnel decisions – involving some very popular stalwarts - between now and September.
Until then, don’t lose too much sleep over a regular season that ended up being one of the most compelling in recent years – at least following Thanksgiving.
Shawn Curtis is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/shawncurtis430.