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Steelers' unrivaled season ends with harshly familiar finish

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The Pittsburgh Steelers never had a season like this, not even when they won more Super Bowls in less time than any team in NFL history.

The problem is the Steelers have had plenty of finishes just like this, and it created a numbingly incomplete conclusion to a remarkable season they were convinced was not yet ready to end.

Some Steelers were in tears Monday following an emotional team-meeting talk by Jerome Bettis, barely 12 hours after the Patriots reversed a regular-season rout by beating Pittsburgh 41-27 in the AFC championship game.

That convincing loss, one that displayed the still-vast differences between an experienced quarterback like Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and a still-developing one like rookie Ben Roethlisberger, was the Steelers' fourth in an AFC final at home in 11 years.

The Steelers' 15-1 regular-season record and franchise-best 15-game winning streak bettered anything produced by their four Super Bowl championship teams of the 1970s, yet they have only an AFC North title to show for it.

No wonder wide receiver Hines Ward nearly broke down after hearing from Bettis, the No. 5 NFL career rusher who is weighing retirement.

We put it all on the line,'' Ward said Monday, tears streaming down his face.It's disappointing. I wanted to win more than anything for him. He deserves to be a champion.''

Bettis, only 59 yards short of a 1,000-yard season despite starting only seven games, played in his third AFC title-game loss in Pittsburgh in eight seasons.

``I need to get away from it and the loss and just take some time away,'' he said.

He's not the only one who needs time to get over this loss, one that reversed a dominating 34-20 win over the Patriots on Oct. 31. The Steelers were the only team to beat both Super Bowl finalists, roughing up NFC champion Philadelphia 28-3 on Nov. 7, yet might have peaked with those two signature victories.

To me, it's like you put in all this hard work, and we didn't capitalize on it,'' Ward said.When you look at it, we had a great year. Nobody expected this. So maybe a week from now we can sit back and reflect on it.''

The pivotal play of the most surprising season in franchise history turned out to be quarterback Tommy Maddox's elbow injury during a 30-13 loss to Baltimore on Sept. 19. That forced them to play Roethlisberger at least a year ahead of schedule, and nobody in the league expected him to play like this.

Roethlisberger was 14-0 until losing Sunday, easily the best season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. No other rookie QB won more than six games to start his career.

``The kid will learn. He is going to be a good quarterback, and it is a very tough learning experience,'' coach Bill Cowher said.

Roethlisberger admittedly has much to work on despite all he accomplished as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. His production fell off sharply as the season wound down, from 12 touchdown passes and four interceptions in his first 10 starts to six TD passes and 10 interceptions in his last five _ including five interceptions in playoff games against the Jets and Patriots.

It's going to be a big offseason for me to go back and reflect on how I played, how I should have played and to just try to get better,'' he said.Hopefully, we will be better next year.''

It will also be a big offseason for the Steelers, who figure to lose wide receiver Plaxico Burress, linebacker Kendrell Bell and right guard Keydrick Vincent in free agency. However, they will get back two injured starters next season in nose tackle Casey Hampton and right guard Kendall Simmons.

They would like to bring back their Bettis-Duce Staley power running duo after the two thrived sharing the same job. Staley had four 100-yard games in five games before injuring a hamstring; Bettis had seven 100-yard games in eight starts after replacing him.

The Steelers also got remarkably good seasons from players such as former Seattle backup cornerback Willie Williams and previously untried nose tackle Chris Hoke after starters got hurt.

But the Steelers have set the bar incredibly high, and only the Super Bowl will satisfy them next season. Of course, they said the same thing after losing the AFC title game at home following the 1994, 1997 and 2001 seasons, and each time had a worse record the preceding season.

No doubt there were countless fans who, only hours removed from Sunday night's loss, began counting down the days to Big Ben Year II.

We had a record-breaking storybook season,'' Roethlisberger said.Unfortunately, a lot of people will see it as all for nothing because you did not go all the way.''

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