Everything was right there for the taking for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they prepared to face the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football. The San Diego Chargers just gave Pittsburgh a great big Christmas present the night before by embarrassing the Baltimore Ravens on national tv and putting control of the AFC North and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs solely in the their possession.
However, the Steelers must be huge fans of returning presents on December 26th, because they turned around and gave the gift back to the Ravens by virtue of their pretty sloppy, 20-3, loss to the 49ers.
The Steelers again need help to take control of the AFC North, but even if they do find that kind of fortune for a second time and clinch the division on New Year's Day, they still could find themselves playing on Wildcard Weekend, and then having to play two road games after that if they want to reach their second straight Super Bowl.
If the Steelers win the division but finish with the same record as the Houston Texans, they would be the 3rd seed when the playoffs start. The Texans hold the head-to-head tiebreaker because of their 17-10 win over the Steelers in week 4.
The odds for a bye were pretty long going into last weekend, and now they're even longer, but I wouldn't be totally shocked if Steeler Nation witnessed a couple of playoff games at Heinz Field this season. Things just always seem to fall into place for Pittsburgh
Since 1992, the Steelers have participated in 24 playoff games (non-Super Bowls), and 18 of those games have been played either at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field. And those three straight road victories on the way to Super Bowl XL marked the only postseason in this era that the Steelers had to play more than one game away from home.
You might not be shocked by that--after all, the Steelers are one of the most successful franchises in the history of professional sports--but since their current run of sustained success started in '92, the Steelers have been to the playoffs 14 times but have only been the top seed on four occasions.
Great or not, the Steelers have needed their share of help to get so many home playoff games over the past two decades.
The help started coming in that '92 season, which was a resurgence of sorts for the franchise. They had a new, exciting coach in Bill Cowher, and there was re-newed energy surrounding the fans after witnessing many years of mediocrity. The Steelers finished with their best record since the 70's at 11-5, and even though they found themselves in a tie with three-other teams (including the Bills, who beat them in the regular season), they began the playoffs with the number 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs by virtue of the Dolphins beating out the Bills for the AFC East title. Unfortunately, after another loss to the Bills in the divisional playoffs, Pittsburgh's homefield advantage only lasted one game.
Three years later, in 1995, the Steelers were now bona fide championship contenders when the playoffs began. However, they entered as the number 2 seed and faced the prospect of playing in Kansas City for the AFC Title Game. Everyone knows how tough the Chiefs are at home (just ask the Packers), but the 9-7 Indianapolis Colts went into KC and knocked off the Chiefs in the divisional round, ensuring that Three Rivers Stadium would host its second straight AFC Championship Game.
In 1997, the exact same scenario played out. The Steelers were the number 2 seed and watched as the wildcard Broncos knocked off the Chiefs in the divisional playoffs. Unfortunately, the Steelers didn't repeat the '95 script, but at least Three Rivers got to hold another AFC Title clash.
Fast forward to week 15 of the 2008 season. The Steelers were set to play the Titans in Tennessee. Pittsburgh had just clinched the AFC North and a first round bye a week earlier with a dramatic victory in Baltimore, and now, if they could knock off the Titans, they would pave the way for a number 1 seed when the playoffs began. Unfortunately, much like this past Monday night in San Fran, the Steelers played a sloppy game with a lot on the line and lost by 17 points, and the Titans clinched the top seed. But before the Steelers even played their first playoff game, the Titans were upset at home by the Ravens on a Saturday afternoon. After Pittsburgh took care of the Chargers the next day, another trip to Pittsburgh awaited Baltimore, and Heinz Field would see its third AFC Title Game in the stadium's very brief history. The Steelers won and advanced to their seventh Super Bowl.
And just last season, after the Steelers out-lasted the Ravens in a very emotionally charged Divisional Playoff game, everyone assumed Pittsburgh would be traveling to Foxboro the following week to take on the New England Patriots for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The Patriots had just man-handled the Steelers in a regular season game, and it wasn't even THAT close. For their divisional playoff game, the Patriots would be hosting a New York Jets team that they destroyed, 45-3, just five weeks earlier. Well, you know what they say about people who assume. The Jets upset the Patriots, and Heinz Field was alive and rockin' the following week as the Steelers advanced to their third Super Bowl in six seasons.
That's a pretty impressive list of reasons why this Saturday's game against the Rams might not be the last time we see Heinz Field full of waving Terrible Towels.
Yes, the Steelers need a ton of help, but as history tells us, they just might get it.
Don't go throwin' away those playoff tickets just yet.