DENVER - The Denver Broncos led by seven points and were threatening to increase their lead as the fourth quarter began Sunday.
The Steelers lined up on defense with Steve McLendon, Ryan Mundy, Keenan Lewis and Cameron Heyward on the field.
Those guys might be top-notch NFL players at some point in their careers, but they aren't necessarily defenders a team with Super Bowl aspirations would want playing in key moments of a playoff game.
The Steelers were upset by the Broncos in stunning fashion, 29-23 in overtime, in a wild AFC wild-card game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, but a victory would have just prolonged a season that wasn't heading toward a Super Bowl berth in Indianapolis in February.
The Steelers, in the end, did not have a championship-caliber team this year.
"I'm proud of our guys and the way they fought, but, obviously, we're not in it for moral victories,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It wasn't enough.''
The Steelers were good enough to make the playoffs with a 12-4 record. They beat some good teams along the way, such as the New England Patriots, the Tennessee Titans and the Cincinnati Bengals twice.
But their two losses to the Baltimore Ravens during the regular season and a loss in San Francisco that would have won the AFC North Division for the team - and prevented them from playing in the wild-card round - showed they were not quite the team that had gone to three Super Bowls in the previous six seasons.
It was evident again on Sunday in the loss to the Broncos when they allowed Tim Tebow to produce his biggest game of his NFL career, and that's pretty significant considering his performances from earlier this season.
Tebow threw for 316 yards against the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL? Imagine what Tom Brady might have done next Saturday if the Steelers would have somehow pulled out a victory over Denver.
Five of Tebow's passes went for 30 yards or more, including the game-winning 80-yard toss to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.
"That's something as a defense you definitely can't let happen,'' Mundy said. "That will make it very hard to win a game, especially when we come up on the short side there at the end. But those are plays that we pride ourselves on not letting happen.''
The Steelers offense led a second-half comeback on Sunday after the team fell behind, 20-6. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 289 yards, and Isaac Redman ran for 121.
But the offense was not the type of unit that was going to outscore teams like the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints or even the Patriots in a big game. The offense seemed out of sync ever since Roethlisberger sprained his ankle against Cleveland on Dec. 4.
Roethlisberger threw an interception that set up a Broncos field goal, and the team failed to score touchdowns on two drives in the first quarter when the Steelers were dominating the game.
"It's always disappointing,'' Roethlisberger said. "Offensively, you feel like you can do so much more, and you don't do it.''
One could point to injuries on why the Steelers experienced a quick exit from the playoffs. Players like Mundy, Redman and McLendon were playing significant minutes in Sunday's game because of the team's injury woes.
Center Maurkice Pouncey, Roethlisberger and linebacker LaMarr Woodley haven't been healthy for the latter part of the season. Running back Rashard Mendenhall was out because of ligament tears in his knee, safety Ryan Clark didn't play against the Broncos because of a sickle cell trait that could have made his playing in high altitude life-threatening, and nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive end Brett Keisel and offensive tackle Max Starks went out with injuries during the game.
"We don't make excuses in regards to injuries,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "The guys we put on the field were capable of doing the job, and the reason we didn't do the job is because we didn't perform. We didn't perform well enough from a coaching standpoint and from a player standpoint.''
If one takes Tomlin at his word and accepts that injuries didn't play a part in the Steelers' ultimate demise, then this should be the ultimate conclusion: The Steelers were not good enough in 2011 to go the distance.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.