PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' season is riddled with what-ifs. In (dis)honor of their eight losses here are eight things that shaped their fate.
Near miss in opener: The Steelers took a shot deep down the right sidelines after getting a safety on the opening kickoff, but Emmanuel Sanders couldn't haul in Ben Roethlisberger's pass. It would have been a good catch but it turned into the kind of near-miss that defined Sanders' season as much as the big plays he delivered. You have to wonder if the Titans would have recovered had that play led to a touchdown and an early 9-0 Steelers lead. Instead the Steelers lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey to a season-ending knee injury on the first drive of the season and didn't score when Isaac Redman fumbled out of the end zone.
Hard to handle in Cincinnati: The Steelers were leading 3-0 in the second quarter when tight end David Paulson lost a fumble at the end of a 34-yard catch and run. Had Paulson held onto the ball the Steelers would have had a first down on the Bengals' 16-yard line. They would have been looking at least a 6-0 lead with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton struggling with his accuracy. That play pivoted the game toward the Bengals and loomed large in a 20-10 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.
Off and running in Oakland: Terrelle Pryor broke free for a 93-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage and that set the tone for another bad trip to Oakland. A handful of Steelers were caught out of position on the scamper, and that run exceeded the number of passing yards Pryor had (88). It also set an NFL record for longest run by a quarterback. The Steelers seemed to be a step slow all afternoon and the loss blunted any momentum they had generated following back-to-back wins.
Not so automatic: Shaun Suisham missed just two field goals all season and was as good as any kicker this side of Justin Tucker. But his misses couldn't have been timed any worse as both came in what turned out to be a three-point loss in Oakland. Nothing is as hard to comprehend about what happened this season then Suisham losing it for one game -- and one game only in an otherwise outstanding season. Both of his misses came inside of 35 yards and Suisham blamed himself for the worst loss of the season afterward.
Costly drop in Baltimore: The Steelers nearly rallied from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit, but Sanders dropped a 2-point conversion pass that would have tied the game, and the Ravens recovered the ensuing onside kick. The Steelers were nearly out of offensive linemen by the end of another brutal battle of attrition with their archrivals, and the injuries that decimated them up front might have put them at a disadvantage in overtime. On the other hand, the Steelers clearly had the Ravens on their heels after scoring three touchdowns in the second half. And they would have loved to take their chances in overtime.
No doubting Thomas: A backup running back playing on a bad wheel turned in the biggest play of the game when he broke free for a 55-yard run to set up the Dolphins' go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins blocked the play well though Troy Polamalu said after the Steelers' 34-28 loss that he had not gotten to his assigned gap. The run propelled Daniel Thomas, who played on an injured ankle, to only the second 100-yard game of his career and first since his rookie season in 2011. It also led to another improbable loss for the Steelers.
Almost a miracle: The Steelers came within inches of pulling off what would have been one of the greatest endings in NFL history. Sanders caught a pass at around the Steelers' 40-yard line and triggered a series of laterals after he gained about 5 more yards and tossed the ball back to Jerricho Cotchery. The ball reversed field and ended up tucked under Antonio Brown's left arm. Brown weaved his way through the Dolphins defense with no time left on the clock and reached the end zone. Officials however, correctly ruled that he stepped out of bounds at the 12-yard adding another heartbreaking chapter to the Steelers season. Brown probably could have avoided stepping out and still scored but snow made it difficult to tell where he was on the field. No single play epitomized the Steelers' near-miss season than this one.
No call shuts door on Steelers: Wouldn't you have loved to hear what Mike Tomlin was yelling at his TV when he noticed the Chargers were lined up illegally before Ryan Succop's 41-yard field goal attempt? Succop should have gotten a mulligan -- and moved 5 yards closer -- after barely missing the field goal that would sent the Steelers to the playoffs but no penalty was called. A quick whistle may have also cost the Steelers in overtime when Eric Weddle was ruled down before a Chiefs player ripped the ball out of his arms and raced into the end zone. Tomlin is a member of the NFL's competition committee and you can bet he will have plenty to say on the state of officiating.