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Mike Tomlin and the Steelers are stuck in NFL purgatory. There appears to be no quick way out

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin doesn't change much game to game. Week to week. Year to year.

That almost maniacal consistency is one of the reasons the NFL's longest-tenured head coach has kept the Pittsburgh Steelers competitive in a league where parity is the norm.

The problem, of late anyway, is the results have been consistent for the team Tomlin leads too.

Good. But not good enough.

Competitive. But not competitive enough.

Not when it matters anyway.

Pittsburgh's 31-17 loss to Buffalo in the wild-card round Monday looked an awful lot like many of the playoff setbacks that have come since beating Kansas City in the divisional round in 2016.

The Steelers fell behind early. They scrambled to try and get back in it. The defense could never get that one stop. The offense could never make that one play.

And instead of spending Tuesday beginning preparation for a trip to Baltimore to face the Ravens, Tomlin found himself leading a team-wide exit meeting before beginning the painful post-mortem on a season as challenging as any he's faced.

Though he went viral on Monday night after declining to answer a question about his future — Tomlin smirked, turned to his left and disappeared — there is little reason to think the 51-year-old is burned out or ready to move on.

Star outside linebacker T.J. Watt simply answered “no” if he's seen any change in Tomlin this season. Longtime defensive captain Cam Heyward offered an even more impassioned defense of the only man he's played for in his 13 seasons as a pro.

“My thought is he’s going to be the coach here,” Heyward said on Tuesday. “Mike T wants to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. Is a Pittsburgh Steeler.”

A Steeler who needs to find a way to get his team out of purgatory.

While there are plenty of success stories — from the play of rookies Joey Porter Jr. and Broderick Jones to the emergence of second-year running back Jaylen Warren to another AP Defensive Player of the Year-worthy season from Watt — there were nearly as many headaches.

The firing of offensive coordinator Matt Canada in November. Open criticism about the questionable effort level of wide receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson. A three-game slide in early December that led Tomlin to turn to third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph in hopes of providing something — anything — to an underachieving offense.

Somehow, the Steelers found a way to find a way, winning their last three games to sneak into the playoffs for the 11th time in Tomlin's tenure.

For the 10th time, that appearance finished without the team adding a Super Bowl trophy to the six that greet Tomlin on his way to work each day. For the fourth straight time, that appearance failed to produce a single playoff win.

It is not “the standard” that Tomlin has so readily embraced since the Steelers hired the then-largely anonymous 34-year-old to replace Bill Cowher in January 2007. And Tomlin knows it. So do his players.

“To be able to put in the work to get in those (playoff) positions and not capitalize makes it ... frustrating,” said Watt, who led the NFL with 19 sacks but missed the Buffalo game with a left knee injury.

Watt said on the day he arrived at Saint Vincent College for training camp his goal this season was to advance in the postseason for the first time in his career. Instead, he spent a portion of Tuesday signing jerseys for teammates and wondering what he's going to do to fill the void until organized team activities begin this spring.

“It’s strange. It sucks. It’s not fun,” Watt said. “But only one team gets to feel great after the season. You know, I’m just waiting to have that feeling.”

So is a coach that doesn't appear to be heading anywhere.

QUARTERBACK QUANDARY

Kenny Pickett began September with hope and what felt like momentum after a promising preseason. By January he was on the bench watching Rudolph lead the Steelers to the playoffs.

While Pickett figures to be given every chance to be the starter in 2024, he'll need to take a major step forward after throwing a pedestrian six touchdowns against four interceptions in 12 games.

In a conference loaded with talented young quarterbacks, the Steelers can't afford to settle for average play at the most important position on the field.

CAN CAM?

Heyward has spent more than a decade as the heartbeat of the Pittsburgh defense. Whether he returns to give it another go in 2024 is up in the air.

The 34-year-old missed extended time with a groin injury that bothered him since the start of training camp and struggled to find the consistent form that's made him a six-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro. Heyward has one year left on a contract that will count for more than $22 million against the salary cap.

That's a lot of money for a player in the twilight of his career.

“It's a business first I get that,” Heyward said. “But we’ll cross that road when we get there."

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