Troy Polamalu And The Steelers' Missed Opportunities - By Neal Coolong

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

It seemed impossible.

Troy PolamaluNo way was that ball floating in the air like a bubble right to All-World safety Troy Polamalu.

Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer wasn't nearly as effective in the second half as he was in the first in the Bengals' 38-31 win at Pittsburgh.

But was he about to make a monumentous mistake?

The ball hung in the air just long enough for those watching at home to see the streak of black hair fly to the ball. Everyone on the field, the sidelines and around the country gasped suddenly, regardless of which side they were on.

Polamalu jumped.

The memory of a 15-1 season instantly came to my mind. A year where that pass is intercepted 10 times out of 10. All the stories told and read about Polamalu and Palmer having lived and played together at USC rang in my ears. Haven't we seen this before? The story about Polamalu flattening Palmer at the goal line after a similar interception at a similar point in an earlier game?

And most importantly, the defense, which clearly had to win this game for the Steelers in the second half, was about to land that deadly blow that has been lacking this season.

But just like most other moments in the Steelers recent three-game losing streak, it didn't materialize into anything but a hopeful thought.

The ball grazed off Polamalu's hands and on to the lush green which stood as the only thing in front of he and the end zone.

It would have tied the game.

The hopeful thoughts that filled my head just a nano-second earlier were replaced by one thought: That was our last chance.

It's that thought that's still with me. Looking at 7-5, a game back of the wild card hunt, it's hard not to remember what I told SteelerGal after the loss to Baltimore Nov. 20.

"We're in deep trouble. At Indy, vs. Cincinnati, vs. Chicago. Two losses out of three is going to take us out of the playoff race."

Had Polamalu picked off his former roommate for the third time in his career, we're looking at a different story. Assuming any one of Pittsburgh's running backs finds enough of a handle to actually hold on to the ball, the Steelers score on that ensuing possession, game is tied.

That incomplete pass that Polamalu nearly intercepted is perfect personification of this season.

He just didn't get it done. You can't blame him for not making the catch, but he just didn't get it done.

The offense just didn't do enough against Jacksonville Oct. 16. The defense couldn't get it done against the Patriots Sept. 25. The special teams wasn't able to maintain an advantage Sunday. The coaches just didn't prepare the team well enough against Baltimore Nov. 20. Throw in a loss to the best team the league has ever seen in Indianapolis , and the Steelers have fit themselves perfectly to lay the team's biggest season egg since 1999, when they went 6-10 after reaching the AFC Championship game a year earlier. The only issue is the 1999 team didn't start 7-2.

To Pittsburgh's credit, they won those seven games through toughness, grit and with second-rate quarterbacks. No offense, Chaz, but if a team is hitting the field with Charlie Batch under center, any win against anyone is an upset. Ditto times two for Tommy Maddox. Isn't it fair to say that this losing streak is clearly an issue of execution rather than talent? Ben throws for a career high 380 yards, but has four interceptions. Willie Parker had 75 yards rushing on 15 attempts, but fumbled twice. The defense stopped Palmer and Cincinnati's high-powered offense in the second half, but gave up a 93-yard kickoff return.

And then there was Polamalu's missed interception. A play that would have immortalized him forever (I even like to play the replay in my head where he does make the catch and drives full-bore into Palmer at the goal line again).

Polamalu even said after the game "Great players make that catch. I wasted an opportunity."

Unfortunately, Troy, your teammates have been wasting them all season.