Curious lapses end Steelers' dream season at hands of Jaguars

PITTSBURGH -- All the talk about a seventh Super Bowl push or a Patriots rematch or home-field advantage in the playoffs seems silly now, given the mistakes made inside a froze-over Heinz Field on Sunday.

Giving up 45 points to the Jacksonville Jaguars, coupled with a series of regrettable calls, evaporated the Pittsburgh Steelers' dream season in a sea of teal on Sunday.

When the Steelers' defense needed its best, it sold out on a play-action fake and watched Jaguars fullback Tommy Bohanon go untouched for the 14-yard touchdown with 4 minutes, 19 seconds left, all but sealing Jacksonville's 45-42 victory. Josh Lambo's 45-yard field goal with 1:45 left put the game out of reach.

The postgame locker room scene was bleak as several defensive players were emotional. One starter had his head buried in a towel for minutes, and another was openly crying.

Players spoke openly about missed assignments and not playing their gaps at crucial times.

"We have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback," linebacker Bud Dupree said. "We’re supposed to make a stop, give them a chance. We didn’t."

Two botched fourth-and-ones and an awkward onside kick with more than two minutes left and two timeouts to set up the Lambo kick won't age well over the next six months as Pittsburgh ponders what could have been. Coach Mike Tomlin said he stands by his calls.

The game was remarkably brilliant in spots. Back and forth both teams went, taking vicious hits and swinging right back, the Steelers taking momentum back and then fumbling it away.

Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell kept answering, desperate to keep the season alive in a thrilling finish.

But spotting Jacksonville 14 points off turnovers early was too steep of a price, and the Steelers' offense was doomed by three drives inside the Jacksonville 40 netting zero points.

Two fourth-down touchdown dimes from Roethlisberger to Brown and Martavis Bryant weren't enough to overcome Jacksonville's scores off a Myles Jack interception and a Telvin Smith fumble recovery for a score.

Roethlisberger said he wanted to face Jacksonville, and he showed it why with touchdowns and 469 passing yards But the Steelers were buried far too early, and Roethlisberger, who lost the fumble recovered by Smith, fell on the proverbial sword.

"[The stat line] doesn't matter when you give them 14 more. That's on me," Roethlisberger said. "I'll take full blame for those points and that loss. You can't put your defense in that situation."

This didn't feel like a shootout as much as the Steelers simply trying to catch up. The Jaguars led the entire way. The Steelers' final touchdown came in the final second -- literally.

The Steelers looked woefully rusty to start the game.

Jacksonville's slow tight ends went for easy first downs on the game's opening touchdown drive. An outside pitch to Bell on fourth-and-1 at the 25 fell flat as Jacksonville saw it the whole way.

In the final minute of the half, the Steelers ran 20 seconds off the clock before calling a timeout because of personnel confusion with the wide receivers.

The game felt over early in the first half. The Steelers' sideline was stunned. The Pittsburgh crowd was stunned. And Jacksonville kept coming.

The Steelers won two of their three regular-season games when trailing by 14 or more points, and they did their best not to flinch Sunday, evidenced by safety Robert Golden's punt block early in the fourth quarter to set up the offense.

Seven of the Steelers' last nine drives went for at least 42 yards, with back-to-back-to-back drives of 75 yards to end the game.

"Nobody quit, literally to the last second. Nobody stopped. Nobody gave up., that's what makes me proud," Roethlisberger said.

Even when Brown's 23-yard touchdown with 8:20 left in the half gave the slightest hint of life to Heinz Field, snagging the pass in the smallest of spaces with A.J. Bouye in coverage, the Steelers had to answer for Jacksonville's running attack.

When the Steelers sought to make history this season, giving up three first-half rushing touchdowns in a playoff game for the first time in franchise history during the Super Bowl era is not what they meant.

At times Sunday, Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette was going 4 yards before getting touched, and when he was touched, he was dragging defenders an extra 4 to 6 yards. Fournette had 82 yards in the first half before leaving the game temporarily with an ankle injury. The Steelers knew stopping Jacksonville meant stopping the run, and they still gave up 164 rushing yards and four rushing scores.

"Rust did not play a part," said defensive end Cam Heyward, part of a Steelers front that did not sack Blake Bortles. "Execution played a part, not trusting that everybody is going to be in their gaps."

The Steelers simply left too many plays out there. They'll have the next six months to think about them.

Several players swear they weren't looking ahead to the Patriots. Guard Ramon Foster had a few colorful words to dispel that notion, saying, "No way we [expletive] overlooked" the team for which they had two weeks to prepare and beat them 30-9 in Week 5.

Regardless, a championship window with several star players closes for another year.

"I'm hoping we can do it all day," said Brown, who went for 132 yards on a calf that wasn't 100 percent. "Have to start all over."