PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger had such a late start to his season, it's no wonder he tried to stretch it all the way to Pittsburgh's final series in February.
He wished he could have led one more drive — a victory parade down the packed streets of Pittsburgh with a seventh Super Bowl trophy along for the ride.
Instead, the Steelers remain stuck on six.
One day after Pittsburgh's 31-25 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, the gloomy weather seemed fitting for a city dealing with a rare loss in the big game. If there's one franchise that isn't used to this feeling, it's the Steelers. Sure, they lost a Super Bowl before, but they've won two since and they have six in their collection.
What's more, Roethlisberger lost his chance to join rarified air and become one of the few quarterbacks with three Super Bowl rings — think Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw. Instead, he threw two picks vs. the Packers and saw one returned for a touchdown.
"I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, the fans, my coaches, my teammates," he said after the loss.
The Steelers can only hope they won't hear a similar speech this offseason from the maligned quarterback.
Roethlisberger shamed the organization last offseason with his behavior in a Georgia nightclub that resulted in a sexual abuse allegation. He wasn't prosecuted, but did earn a four-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
He told the Steelers on the final drive that he believed in them and they could win the game. But he could only move them 20 yards, before turning the ball over on downs, while another one of the NFL's iconic franchises celebrated.
Normally, when a topic like Roethlisberger's third title pops up, the old NFL adage that "there's always next year" would surface.
But that might not be the case this year.
The collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the day on March 3, and barring an agreement before then, owners are threatening to lock out players. Therefore, Sunday's Super Bowl could be the last game played this calendar year.
"I don't think it's even a 'possible lockout.' I feel that it's something that is definitely going to happen," Steelers linebacker James Harrison said. "I hope it doesn't, because it's going to take a lot away from the fans. When it comes down to it, it's a business move for (the NFL), and if it's the way they say it is, I don't see any other option. They still will make their money and not have to pay anything."
If that's not the case, and 2011-12 goes on as planned, the Steelers will return in great shape.
Roethlisberger and receiver Hines Ward will be back. So, too, will a young core at the skill positions that should keep the Steelers AFC contenders moving forward. Team president Art Rooney certainly believes the franchise has the right players in place to build a Super Bowl champion around.
"I feel good about our team," he said. "We'll go into next year feeling like we'll take another shot at it. It takes a few days to recover from this game, so we'll lick our wounds for a couple of days and then get back to work next year."
There's plenty of blame to pass around for the way this season ended, though.
The Steelers were let down by a defense picked apart by Aaron Rodgers. Harrison and Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu, the Steelers' super safety, failed to deliver the big plays and hard hits at opportune times that had defined the season. Rodgers, the Super Bowl MVP, took aim at the Steelers' suspect secondary and connected for several clutch plays.
"(Green Bay's) defense," Polamalu said, "outplayed our defense."
The Steelers, who were not available to the media on Monday, returned to Pittsburgh without a parade to plan. Street vendors hawking Steelers merchandise offered blowout sales on "last day to buy!" signs. And airport kiosks were quiet without any Super Bowl-champion T-shirts to sell, as shoppers lingered in novelty stores without the pressure to buy.
At Primanti Brothers restaurant — a Pittsburgh tradition that has fed many a Steeler fan — folks noshed on their pastrami-and-cheese sandwiches, paying no attention to the muted Super Bowl highlights at a TV hanging near the counter.
A silver lining for the black-and-gold faithful is all the "Seventh Heaven" merchandise will still be good for at least another year.
And linebacker James Farrior — a veteran spokesman for the defense — believed the Steelers will be in the Super Bowl mix next season.
"I think so," he said. "I love this group. I think it is a heck of a group. There is a lot more football left in us. We just have to stay together. Hopefully, everything works out in the offseason and we get back here next season."
But it's the season after Super Bowls, more than the game itself, that has given the Steelers fits recently. In fact, Pittsburgh failed to make the playoffs after each of their last two Super Bowl titles. They finished 8-8 in 2006 and 9-7 in 2009.
Rooney doesn't seem worried, though.
"I don't think we'll be sitting there saying we're gonna make a lot of changes," he said. "We'll prepare for the draft and add some players here and there, and be ready to go."
"Seventh Heaven" still awaits.