PITTSBURGH (AP) -In the end, the Pittsburgh Steelers came up empty.
Not on the field - they won their final three games to avoid a losing record, which seemed very possible after they inexplicably lost five in a row. Rather, they couldn't settle on an explanation for why a team that was so good for 1 1/2 seasons became so bad so quickly, a fatal flaw in a season filled with shortcomings.
In one of the most illogical seasons in their 77-year history, the Steelers (9-7) looked like champions again while starting 6-2. Then they suddenly forgot how to win - losing to the Chiefs (4-12), Raiders (5-11) and Browns (5-11) amid the longest losing streak by any reigning Super Bowl champion.
They turned themselves around by beating the Packers (11-5), Ravens (9-7) and Dolphins (7-9), but it was too late by then to regain their grip on a season that had slipped away. They needed a combination of improbable scenarios Sunday to return to the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, and none occurred.
"It was like 'What do we do now?"' center Justin Hartwig said of Monday's team meeting. "The purpose that we've been fighting for every week is gone."
Take away only one of those dreadful losses to some of the NFL's worst teams, and they would be confidently striding into the playoffs with a three-game winning streak and the look of a team that no one would willingly choose to play in a win-or-go-home game in January.
"It's a shame, man," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We're a good team."
How could it happen?
"I felt like we had our moments where we were unstoppable, we had moments we stopped ourselves and moments when the defense stopped us," Ben Roethlisberger said.
Maybe the quarterback is right: Nothing about the Steelers singularly was at fault, but everything was to blame during a season in which they played a far weaker schedule than they did while going 12-4 in 2008, yet finished with a much-worse record.
The defense that put together one of the best seasons in NFL history the year before looked old and overwhelmed at times. They were No. 5 overall, but plunged to No. 16 against the pass after leading the league in 2008.
If nothing else was consistent, at least this was: No lead was safe; the Steelers lost five times after leading in the fourth quarter. They gave up a remarkable 135 points in that quarter, third most in the NFL, including a combined 43 points in successive home games against the Raiders (21 points) and Packers (22).
A fast-aging defense in which nearly every key starter is 30 or older simply wasn't the same when safety Troy Polamalu, one of the league's best players, twice went down with left knee injuries. The Steelers were 4-0 when he played past the first quarter, 5-7 when he didn't, and went into multigame losing streaks each time he was hurt.
The Steelers also badly missed defensive end Aaron Smith, who was lost for the season Oct. 11 with a right shoulder injury. Still, two injuries don't fully explain the Steelers' terrible late-game pass coverage.
"Those are veteran guys, guys with experience, and guys like that can communicate," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who had a team-high 13 1/2 sacks. "Aaron knows what's coming. Troy confuses an opposing offense."
The special teams were a season-long misadventure, with a remarkable four kickoff return touchdowns allowed during a midseason five-game stretch. Their own return unit didn't produce a single score. They went 2-4 in the AFC North after going 6-0 last season.
The offense became increasingly reliant upon Roethlisberger, who was sacked 50 times yet threw for a franchise-record 4,328 yards, seventh most in the league. Rashard Mendenhall ran for 1,108 yards although he seemed like an afterthought at times and free agent-to-be Willie Parker (389 yards) was almost invisible for long stretches.
For the first time in their history, the Steelers had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Santonio Holmes and Ward), a 4,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher, yet this offense never found its way into the end zone during a 13-6 loss at Cleveland on Dec. 10.
While the answers don't come easily, the questions are numerous as the Steelers begin an unexpectedly long offseason.
They must decide how many of their 30-plus starters need to be phased out; they might draft an inside linebacker (James Farrior turns 35 on Wednesday), a nose tackle and a cornerback. Neither of the cornerbacks drafted in the early rounds in April, Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis, contributed much.
Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's contract is up and given how important he is to their 3-4 defense, it won't be easy to replace him. The Steelers could pin the franchise player tag on him.
The coaching staff almost certainly won't return intact, and director of football operations Kevin Colbert - as important as any player to their two Super Bowl victories since 2005 - is entering the final season of his contract.
Regardless, coach Mike Tomlin doesn't expect this season to factor into what happens during the 2010 season.
"There is no carry-over," he said. "This body of work stands on its own. We didn't carry over from last year."