It sure seemed like a goodbye as Ben Roethlisberger took a victory lap around Heinz Field, much to the delight of the fans who have cheered his remarkable career.
It seemed like the end of the regular season, too, but that’s another story. There’s another week to go for the NFL and the reality of an extra game is sinking in for players who never wanted it in the first place.
But if a season ever needed a feel good moment, this was it. And if anyone was looking for a quarterback to cheer after the selfish antics of others proved costly to their teams, they found one under center for the last time in Pittsburgh, where Roethlisberger played his entire career.
The Steelers aren’t in the playoffs yet, and likely won’t be. No matter, because Roethlisberger isn’t the quarterback he once was and even the most ardent Steeler fans can see they don’t have the look of a team ready for a deep postseason run.
Minnesota fans would have been happy just to get in. They also would have been happy to see their starting quarterback in Green Bay, but Kirk Cousins couldn’t find enough plexiglass in Minnesota to avoid getting COVID-19.
Carson Wentz barely beat the clock to return from his own bout with COVID in Indianapolis, then played like he was still suffering from the illness in a loss to the Raiders. Fortunately, the Colts can still advance with a win over Jacksonville – and that is about as much a lock as there is in the parity-driven NFL these days.
A second season clouded by COVID lurches to a relatively anticlimactic conclusion this weekend – but a conclusion nonetheless. A few playoff spots are still up for grabs, but mostly the games will be played with either a look toward the postseason or a long look toward next season.
If the season seems long – and it does – you already know the reason why. A 17th game seems both unnecessary and unnatural, pushing back the Super Bowl to mid-February for no good purpose other than enriching billionaire NFL owners even more.
Still, it’s been a rebound year that has been a success by almost every metric you want to measure sports by. Stadiums were mostly full and TV ratings were as strong as ever – even more so for the three Thanksgiving Day games that were the most watched on the holiday in nearly a quarter century.
The Raiders are proving to be a big hit in Las Vegas, even with some serious off-field problems in a city that never sleeps. America’s favorite team by most measures, the Dallas Cowboys, look like legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and even the Chargers are starting to get some love in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, sports betting is doing just the opposite of what the league warned about for so many years. Instead of destroying the NFL, it is adding even more interest as viewers keep their televisions on late into games to see how their cash plays out.
And while purists may have been put off by the sight Sunday of Antonio Brown quitting on both Tom Brady and his team at the Meadowlands, the spectacle only adds to the intrigue of Brady trying to win a second straight Super Bowl in Tampa Bay at the age of 44.
That Super Bowl looms in Los Angeles, a city that a few years ago had no NFL teams and now has two. It also has a stadium built by Rams owner Stan Kroenke that is the most expensive ever built, a $5 billion monument to the NFL’s success and the league’s enduring appeal to American sports fans.
The Super Bowl is part of the reward for that investment, though no one could have imagined the circumstances it might be played under when it was first awarded. Indeed, the spread of COVID will determine whether the game is a celebration of all things NFL or becomes a more muted affair.
None of that mattered Monday night in an emotional farewell win for a quarterback who has meant so much to Steelers fans. If indeed this is the end for Roethlisberger, he leaves with two Super Bowl rings and one incredible stat.
In the 18 years since Roethlisberger was taken with the 11th choice in the 2004 NFL draft, the Steelers never had a losing season.
That proved true even in a season that was one game too long.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http:/twitter.com/timdahlberg