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Pittsburgh’s drama-filled season ended shockingly. A final Youth Brandon Carlo Jersey , forgettable act.
No shot at the Patriots. No seventh Super Bowl trophy. No tomorrow.
And when it ended following a game no one expected, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and the rest of the dejected Steelers searched to find words to describe all that had gone wrong.
This was a struggle from the start.
”It wasn’t our day,” Roethlisberger said. ”It wasn’t our year.”
Doomed by two first-half turnovers and a pair of head-scratching play calls on fourth down, Pittsburgh was stunned in the AFC playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who outslugged the Steelers 45-42 on Sunday to earn a trip to New England for next week’s conference championship.
Roethlisberger, who had wondered if he was washed up after throwing five interceptions in a loss to the Jags on Oct. 9, set a franchise postseason record with five touchdown passes but it wasn’t enough as the Steelers (13-4) couldn’t stop a Jacksonville offense that was supposedly weak.
”It’s disheartening,” said Brown, who caught two TD passes and played at his All-Pro level while battling a calf injury. ”I thought we had the right guys. As a player, you live for these moments. Now we start all over.”
As Roethlisberger dressed at one end of Pittsburgh’s locker room, a few of his teammates sat at their stalls in disbelief.
This wasn’t the plan.
Cam Heyward handled wave after wave of questions about the team’s numerous defensive lapses. Bell downplayed that his messy contract situation created an unnecessary distraction in the days leading up to the game, and cornerback Artie Burns sat in his uniform and stared blankly at the floor.
The Steelers never recovered from a 21-0 first-half deficit and are now left to wonder what might have been. Twice they got within seven in the second half only to give up back-breaking plays to the Jaguars Jonathan Marchessault Jersey , who rushed for 168 yards and seemed to come up with a big play whenever they needed one.
”It’s crazy that we couldn’t get off the field,” Heyward said. ”They played better than us – simple as that.”
The Jaguars had the Steelers out of step early on. After rookie Leonard Fournette’s second TD, the score set up by linebacker Myles Jack’s interception of Roethlisberger, Jacksonville was up 14-0 and Pittsburgh’s rowdy fans were using their Terrible Towels to muffle their disgust.
The Steelers seemed to panic when coach Mike Tomlin elected to go on fourth-and-inches and then inexplicably ran a sweep to Bell that got snuffed. Later, Roethlisberger threw an incompletion on fourth down when a simple sneak might have moved the chains.
”We didn’t execute well enough and they did,” Tomlin said when asked about his decisions.
Roethlisberger went 37 of 58 for 469 yards and the five TDs, the last coming with 1 second left.
It was a sobering moment for the star quarterback who has orchestrated so many comeback wins during a 14-year career. Roethlisberger found some solace in his final throw.
”Nobody quit and that speaks volumes about this team,” he said.
Roethlisberger also dismissed any talk the Steelers were looking past the Jaguars and a rematch with the Patriots, who handed Pittsburgh its only loss in the last 11 games.
”We were dialed in,” he said. ”I know I wasn’t looking forward.”
Bell finished with 155 total yards and afterward sidestepped much talk about his contract. He was franchise tagged by the team for $12 million this season and has made it clear he wants more money.
”I wasn’t thinking about it,” he said. ”All I was thinking about was getting to the Super Bowl.”
As for his own future, Roethlisberger indicated that he intends to return next season. The 35-year-old has hinted at retirement, but that seemed far from his mind as he swallowed a loss few saw coming.
”I don’t know what’s going on with people’s contracts,” he said. ”I don’t know how many years guys have left. I know the guys up front are all under contract and that’s a good feeling. I definitely have a desire to play football. I love this game. I love these guys. It’s tough. It stings.
”You hate losing at home. I feel bad because I feel like I let the fans down and my teammates down. I feel like I let a lot of people down and I’ll take it all myself. I look forward to next year with those guys.”
There haven’t been any championship banners hoisted into Boston’s hallowed rafters since 2008.
LeBron James won’t let go of the rope.
Cleveland’s star has bounced the Celtics from the playoffs four times in the past seven years Justin Braun Jersey Kids , and James carries a six-game postseason winning streak at Boston into this year’s Eastern Conference finals, which open Sunday at TD Garden.
As a member of both the Miami Heat and Cavaliers, James – whose success against Boston did a 180-degree turn with a mesmerizing Game 6 performance in 2012 – has made the Celtics green(er) with envy.
But while the 33-year-old has the utmost respect for the NBA’s most decorated franchise, James’ admiration hasn’t stopped him from standing in the way of Boston stuffing more Larry O’Brien trophies into its crowded case.
And if he beats the Celtics again and advances to his eighth straight NBA Finals, James would join a club currently exclusive to Boston players with legendary status.
Only Bill Russell (10), Sam Jones (9), Tommy Heinsohn (9) and Frank Ramsey (8) have played in more consecutive Finals than James, who said he hasn’t reflected on the possibility of admission to their group.
”I do know that this is my eighth straight conference finals and I have an opportunity to play for a championship if I’m able to be successful in this conference finals, so I don’t take that for granted,” James said Friday. ”You dream about being able to play in big games in the NBA. Even when I got to the NBA that was one of my only goals – to be as great as I can be, to play in big games in the NBA and be remembered – and I think I’ve done that in my career.
”Just trying to add onto it while I can.”
Early in his career, James saw the Celtics as a postseason exit ramp.
The ”Big 3” Boston team featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen ousted him and the Cavs in 2008 and 2010, the latter series ending with James famously storming off the floor and pulling off his jersey to foreshadow his free-agent departure later that summer for South Beach.
He avenged that loss the following year in the conference semifinals Youth Jake McCabe Jersey , and then in 2012, James had one of his most magnificent postseason exhibitions of his career in Boston. With the Heat down 3-2 in the series, James scored 45 points on 19 of 26 shooting and added 15 rebounds as Miami forced a Game 7 and went on to win consecutive titles.
Since then, he’s 8-1 against the Celtics with a four-game sweep in 2015 and a five-game dusting last year in the conference finals.
James has scored 979 points in 34 playoff games against the Celtics, the most by one player against a single team. And in his past six games on Boston’s parquet, he’s averaging 34.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
James has eight playoff wins in Boston, more than all but four current Celtics.
One of them, Jaylen Brown, knows what’s coming.
”Physically, he is more superior than any guy that is on the floor,” Brown said. ”He’s 260-plus pounds. Can run like a gazelle. Athletic. He’s physical. He’s just unstoppable. We gotta be mentally locked in and have a mindset to try and do the best we can. LeBron is top 3, top 5 of all-time. He’s going to do what he does. We just gotta take away the other guys and have a great mindset of mentally being locked in every possession.”
Boston’s notorious crowd is known for rattling opposing players. In the first round, Celtics fans taunted Milwaukee guard Eric Bledsoe with chants of ”Who Is Bledsoe?” after he unwisely made a comment about Celtics playoff phenom Terry Rozier.
James and his teammates know they’ll have their ears rung as well.
”One of the rowdy environments T.J. Oshie Jersey ,” Cavaliers forward Kyle Korver said. ”Boston is fun. They have a great crowd. They’re ready to get behind their team. There’s been moments where I’ve been on a team where there’s a decent lead and then they make one shot and the place just erupts. You’re like, `Man, they’re going to come back.’ You just feel it. It’s a great place to play, especially in the playoffs.”
Boston’s roar only seems to strengthen James, who appreciates the passion and pride in the Celtics.
”Just the history, you look up in the rafters and you see all the greats that has either played there or the previous arena they played in,” he said. ”It’s a sports town. You look at the Patriots. You look at the Bruins. You look at the Red Sox. You add them, look at all that history. It’s just a sports town. If you’re not green, they don’t mess with you.”
AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower in Boston contributed to this report.