PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger was done with the traditional handshake or three, done meeting the obligations of a losing quarterback, when he lowered his chin and jogged toward the Heinz Field staircase that would take him down into the winter of his discontent.
Fans leaned hard over the railing and shouted his name. One swung his hand and grazed the top of the QB's helmet. Roethlisberger didn't stop. He shook his head ever so gently from left to right, letting everyone know this wasn't the time or place for eye contact or small talk or even a halfhearted high five.
This one hurt a ton -- maybe more than any postseason defeat before it. For starters, Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers lost to their blood rivals, a Baltimore Ravens team that wasn't about to finish on the wrong end of yet another Pier Six brawl on the banks of the Allegheny. The players can't stand each other, and the coaches, John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin, share the kind of neighborly bond that existed between Jim Harbaugh and 49ers' management.
But as much as the Ravens imposed their physicality on Pittsburgh and its grizzly bear of a quarterback in sacking him five times and leaving him with a whiplash in his neck and banged-up hand, Roethlisberger felt something deeper than the normal pain associated with a first-round beatdown.
Roethlisberger felt smaller than a referee's whistle because he dropped Saturday night's 30-17 loss at his own feet. Le'Veon Bell spent the game standing on the sideline in a gray hoodie and black and gold ski cap, and the Steelers' only chance to advance to Denver was riding on Roethlisberger's arm.
"I wish I could apologize individually to everybody," Roethlisberger said in his postgame news conference.
He was asked if he felt a heavier burden because the injured Bell wasn't out there to lighten the load.
"No," Roethlisberger said. "It's just we lost the game, and I don't think I played well enough. And I feel it's my fault we lost the game."
It really wasn't Roethlisberger's fault, of course, not when you consider Bell's absence, the lack of worthy substitutes and the pressure all that put on the quarterback. Roethlisberger ended up with a workable box score -- 31 completions on 45 attempts, 334 yards, one touchdown pass, one interception that came on a deflection and another that came on a desperate endgame scramble after he was driven head-first into the grass and knocked from the game.
"I was kind of laying down there," Roethlisberger said, "and wanted to make sure I could feel everything."
He banged his passing hand on someone or something with 1:06 left and the season already lost, the final indignity on a night full of them. This was supposed to be Roethlisberger's year too. He had outplayed the two AFC elders who had owned his position, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and he appeared primed to carry his team on a deep postseason run.
Yes, in Bell and Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger played the regular season in the company of the best running back and wide receiver in the conference. But this team wasn't about Big Ben's weapons as much as it was about Big Ben.
He was having a career year in the heart of his prime, just as Manning's right arm seemed ready to come unhinged and go sailing off with the ball on the next deep out. If the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl and won it all, this time around, Roethlisberger wasn't planning on being underwhelming enough in the big game to let a Hines Ward or Santonio Holmes leave the building as MVP.
Roethlisberger was playing this postseason for a place among the all-time greats. He had a chance to join Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Brady as the only quarterbacks to win at least three titles in the Super Bowl era.
Neither John Elway nor Roger Staubach won three. Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre combined don't have three. One more victorious Sunday on the biggest stage in sports, and Roethlisberger would match the combined ring total of the brothers Manning, Peyton and Eli.
It's not going to happen this year, and who knows how many more real chances Roethlisberger's going to get. He turns 33 in March, and maybe Saturday night marked the first time he heard the tick-tick-ticking of his biological clock.
"Any time you turn the ball over, it's frustrating," Roethlisberger said. "That's why I want to apologize to the fans, to my teammates, to the organization, the Rooneys, coaches. It's frustrating ... because I didn't play well enough. I didn't play well enough to win, and guys look at me as the leader, as the quarterback to make plays and to do what it takes to win the football game, and I don't believe I did that today."
In the end, Baltimore had the better, tougher defense in winning a playoff game on Pittsburgh's field for the first time in four tries. Roethlisberger tried to cover for the running backs who filled in for Bell, but the truth was the truth:
Josh Harris, undrafted rookie, entered the game with 16 rushing yards to his name (his 59-yarder against Cincinnati was called back), and Ben Tate had been cut by two teams that finished with losing records (Cleveland and Minnesota). They were never going to provide Roethlisberger the ground support he needed.
So the big man had to go it alone, with an assist from his all-world friend on the flanks, Brown. It was pretty clear it wasn't going to be Roethlisberger's night even before Tate deflected a pass that landed between Terrell Suggs' knees, of all places. In the losers' locker room, as owner Dan Rooney made the rounds to thank his players for giving it the ol' college try, the Steelers were having a tough time coming to grips with their one and done.
"To lose to your division rivals, man, it's a terrible feeling," Maurkice Pouncey said. "If you watch any NFL team, if they do the things we did tonight there's no way they're going to win."
Pouncey said Bell's knee injury -- suffered against Cincinnati -- "took a lot away from the game plan. ...You can't replace a guy like that. It's impossible."
In front of his own locker, Bell wouldn't go as far as that. "I'm confident that ... I feel like maybe ... I can't say if I'm playing we would've won the game," he said. "We came up short today, so that's all we can say."
Roethlisberger emerged from the trainer's room with a heavy ice wrap tethered to his hand. Someone asked him to sign a program, and the quarterback somehow grabbed a pen with a claw grip and scribbled his name.
"It's going to sting for a while," Roethlisberger said of his pride, not his hand. "I wish I could apologize to everybody."
Soon enough, Roethlisberger was walking with his wife through the bowels of the stadium, heading for the parking lot. He still has those two Super Bowl rings tucked away somewhere, along with 10 victories in 15 postseason games and the franchise record (taken from Bradshaw) for most career postseason completions.
But he hasn't won a playoff game since he beat the Jets for the AFC title four years ago. This really felt like his time too, after he put up Brady and Manning numbers in the regular season.
That's why it hurt so much. That's why the pain Roethlisberger felt on the ride home had nothing to do with his hand or neck.