Outlined against a pitch-black January sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Da Beard, Swaggin, Troy and Deebo. These are only aliases. Their real names are Keisel, Taylor, Polamalu and Harrison. ...
All apologies to Grantland Rice; as well as Craig Wolfley, who dubbed these four legendary Pittsburgh Steelers "The Four Warhorses Of The Playoff-alypse" in honor of not only their great careers but a season in which those veterans led a young Steelers team back into the playoffs.
To honor them now is to honor what they've done throughout their careers for the organization, the city, and the far-reaching fan base. But to honor them now is to also acknowledge that their glorious run will soon come to an end, perhaps as quickly as they cleared out their lockers following the Steelers' 30-17 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Brett Keisel didn't have anything to say as he cleared out first, and perhaps that's a sign he intends to return. He's been on injured reserve with a torn triceps tendon but had played well this season and after his injury maintained a rigid, late-season rehabilitation program.
His only answer when asked about a possible return in 2015 at the age of 37 has been, "We'll see."
James Harrison experienced a rebirth as he came out of retirement and flashed his old form off the edge. And he came ever-so-close to turning Saturday's game around when he beat the Ravens' left tackle around the corner and zoned in on QB Joe Flacco as Flacco wound up slowly.
Fans sensed that a classic Harrison strip-sack was at hand -- until the Ravens' left guard turned suddenly and gave Harrison a hard shove.
Free, Flacco threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to give the Ravens a 20-9 lead.
"Just came up short," said Harrison. "Give them credit. They played better than we did today."
The 36-year-old Harrison was asked if this was his final game.
"I don't know," he said. "The competitor in me doesn't want to end this way. You don't ever want to end on a loss. You want to go out kissing the Lombardi. But, we'll see."
Harrison was asked if he sees a Steelers team on the rise, and he said, yes, and that to continue in that direction the young players need to "learn to be Steelers, figure out what it takes to be a Steeler and not just play for the Steelers."
What does that entail?
"It's a mindset. It's a work ethic. It's a determination," he said.
Like Keisel, Ike Taylor didn't dress for the game. He broke his forearm early in the season, came back, but didn't play up to his standards and was inactive Saturday night. The 34-year-old cornerback sounded as if he was saying goodbye.
"I'm very fortunate to have played 12 (years)," Taylor said. "I got an opportunity to win two (Super Bowls), been to three. Got an opportunity to have three contracts. So the money ain't the issue. This ain't nothing but the love right here.
"Before the season even started I talked to Joey (Porter) about a paycut. 'Man, what should I do?' He straight out told me, 'Man, ain't nothin' better than Pittsburgh. You're going to be sour for a minute, but when it's all said and done ain't nothing better than being a Pittsburgh Steeler.' And I'm so glad I made that decision because there ain't nothing better than being a Pittsburgh Steeler."
Can Taylor still play?
"Heck yeah I can still play," he said. "I've been playing football since I was eight, so having a broken forearm, that was, like, nothing. That's all about my teammates. I wanted to come back for my teammates. So I had to take a step behind, a step to the side, and just let my young guys grow up. And that's what they did."
Has Ike made a decision about his future?
"No, I haven't decided," Taylor said. "It's still too early to decide. So I'm going to sit down and reflect, talk to my family, talk to Troy, Deebo, Keisel, see what the heck they're doing, and I'll take it from there."
Polamalu was the last to leave the shower and appear at his locker. Except for a crowd of faceless microphones and cameras, Polamalu was alone. He spoke so slowly and softly that a great sadness permeated the air.
Was this the 33-year-old's last game?
"Time will tell," Polamalu said, the first of four times.
Is that a reasonable question to be asked?
"Yes, it is," he said.
Polamalu also believes -- "absolutely" -- that the Steelers are headed in the right direction.
"Sometimes you've just got to pay your dues," Polamalu said. "The Super Bowl teams I've been a part of, it wasn't the first time we made the playoffs. We went to the AFC Championship Game and we lost. People have different reactions but our team grew from that and the following year we won the Super Bowl. Had a bad season in '07, and in '08 we came back and won a Super Bowl. Not to say this is the same group of guys, but I think this is a hard lesson for us to learn and hopefully grow from."
It was a hopeful comment, rife with the positive energy for which Polamalu has become known and why he's become the conscience, the soul, of the organization.
But it also reverberated with sadness at the realization that Polamalu likely won't be a part of it.
"Having two 8-8 years and seeing the growing pains and seeing people develop into AFC North Division champs this year was a great accomplishment for us," Polamalu said. "Of course we wanted more out of it. But it'll be something that this team will learn from, for sure."
"Those who have tackled a cyclone can understand." was how Rice finished his famed column.
Those who have watched one can, too.