There are a lot of nervous people in Steeler Nation this week, hoping and praying that their favorite team somehow manages to win another AFC North crown and at least a bye into the second round of the playoffs. While I want the same thing, I won't be as worried as many when I tune in to see the Steelers take on the Browns at 4:15 on New Year's Day.
Things could be a lot worse. Pittsburgh could need help just to make it into the playoffs. Remember 2009?
I've been following the Steelers for over thirty years, and in all of that time, maybe the most frustrating season to experience was the team's 2009 edition. Going into the year, I was hoping the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers had it in them to repeat as champions (yes, I know, spoiled rotten), and when they got off to a 6-2 start, I figured they'd at least avoid a repeat of what they did in 2006 and not miss the playoffs a year after winning the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, that 2009 squad was living on borrowed time the entire first half, and the many problems that were mere annoyances during the first eight games--stupid penalties, costly turnovers and 4th quarter meltdowns--mushroomed into an epidemic, and the team lost four straight games, each one more gut-wrenching than the last, and the Steelers were now a .500 team at 6-6.
By that point, early December, I had already resorted to the comfort foods of Super Bowl DVDs and college basketball, but the week leading up to the now infamous Thursday night game in Cleveland against the Browns, local scribes like Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac were telling the fans not to give up on the season just yet, that the Steelers, in fact, still had a pretty decent shot at at least the final wildcard spot in the AFC. When I looked at the AFC teams who were fighting for those two wildcard spots, I became encouraged once again. The Broncos were 8-4, but all of the other wildcard contenders were in the same boat as the Steelers, right around the .500 mark.
I became convinced that the Steelers would shrug off their four-game losing-streak and do to the Browns what they should have done to the Chiefs and Raiders--completely dominate an inferior opponent. The Browns were a 1-11 football team heading into that Thursday night game on the NFL Network, and no way would such a pathetic group stand in the way of the Steelers and a possible playoff berth.
Unfortunately, it was the Steelers who looked totally pathetic that night as they lost, 13-6. If I wasn't convinced that Pittsburgh was toast after losing in overtime to the Chiefs and Ravens and falling to the Raiders in the final seconds at Heinz Field, the team's horrible display of football on that cold and windy night in Cleveland left little doubt.
The next day, I was listening to one of Beano Cook's many radio appearances, and he said that Steelers fans had nothing to complain about, the team gave us two Super Bowls in five years, what more could we possibly want? That was sound, logical thinking. The Steelers weren't going to be in the playoffs, but at least there were a few games left to enjoy.
However, those local scribes kept listing playoff scenarios for the Steelers in the newspaper. I wasn't buying it. They couldn't even win a game when they controlled their own destiny, how could they win three-in-a row and get all of the help they needed just to sneak in as a 6th seed?
But in week 15, the Steelers played a memorable game against the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field that ended when Ben Roethlisberger connected with Mike Wallace on the game-winning touchdown pass as time ran out, and just like that, I got a second-wind.
With Denver losing two-straight games and all the other contenders still hovering around the .500 mark, I had renewed enthusiasm and started envisioning a 2005 scenario where the Steelers would get hot at just the right time, sneak into the playoffs on the last day of the season and march all the way to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV.
The following Sunday, the Steelers out-lasted the Ravens at Heinz Field to improve to 8-7, and if the Broncos and Jets could both lose, the Steelers playoff chances would look significantly better. Well, the Broncos took care of their part of the equation by losing to the Eagles (rooting for Philadelphia didn't even phase me, it was all about the Steelers), but as most football fans probably remember, it was week 16 of the 2009 season when Colts' head coach Jim Caldwell decided that resting his starters and keeping them out of harm's way until the postseason began was a little more important than chasing an undefeated season. I can't say I disagreed with that logic, but it sure didn't help the Steelers. A pretty weak New York Jets team took advantage of their new-found fortune and stayed alive in the playoff race by knocking off Indy's scrubs.
The Ravens and Jets both had "win and you're in" status heading into the final week. The Steelers needed big time help. The most realistic scenario had Pittsburgh getting into the playoffs with a win against the Dolphins in Miami combined with losses by the Texans and the Jets or Ravens.
I was pretty optimistic leading up to week 17--I had seen the Steelers overcome long odds and sneak into the playoffs in both 1989 and 1993--and I thought things would fall Pittsburgh's way.
At that point, I wasn't worried about what seed the Steelers could get, or whether or not they'd get a bye, all I wanted was just one playoff game.
I wasn't feeling too good about a Ravens loss. Baltimore was playing in Oakland at 4:15 against a pretty pathetic Raiders team . However, the Texans were going up against New England at home. And even though the Patriots couldn't really improve their playoff position with a win, I figured Belichick and Brady would be too competitive to roll over and play dead so the Texans could stay alive for the playoffs.
The Pats/Texans started at 1pm, as did the Steelers/Dolphins game, and heading into the 4th quarter of each game, things were looking good for the Steelers. New England was beating the Texans, 27-13, and the Steelers were up, 27-10, in Miami.
I was feeling more confident than ever. If the Texans lost, the Steelers just needed a loss by either the Ravens or Jets. Heck, Pittsburgh could be in the playoffs by 7pm! And even if the Ravens won their game, the Jets were playing against the Bengals on Sunday night, and even though the AFC North champion Bengals had nothing to gain by going all out, the Cincy players had insisted all week that they would play to win. I figured the Jets were just posers who got lucky the week before in Indianapolis and they would come back down to Earth against the Bengals.
Back to those 1pm games. Things started to turn pretty sour if you were a Steelers fan. Much like most of the '09 season, the Steelers were doing everything in their power to hold off their opponent in the 4th quarter, as the Dolphins mounted a pretty furious comeback and were now only down by three points. In Houston, quarterback Bobby Hoyer was one of many backups inserted into the lineup for the Patriots. The Texans took advantage and scored 21 unanswered 4th quarter points and won, 34-27. For their part, the Steelers managed to hold off the Dolphins long enough to win, 30-24, but by that point, it was pretty much too little, too late.
During Mike Tomlin's post-game press conference, someone informed him that the Texans had come from behind to win, and even though I was only listening on the radio, I could tell Coach was more than a little disappointed by that outcome. Like the fans, he could see the handwriting on the wall.
Now, the Steelers were down to one last, very improbable scenario--they needed the Ravens, Broncos and Jets to all lose their games. The Broncos would go on to lose to the Chiefs, but before that game was even over, the Ravens were walking off the field in Oakland victorious, and the Steelers were officially eliminated from the playoffs.
As it turned out, even if Baltimore would have lost, it wouldn't have mattered because the Bengals decided to take a Sunday evening nap on national television and lost to the playoff-bound New York Jets, 37-0.
I don't know why I decided to get my hopes up after that Green Bay win. I guess like most die-hard fans, I'm an eternal optimist, but I wish I hadn't, because for whatever reason, seeing the Steelers eliminated from the playoffs that day was one of the most depressing thing I've ever experienced as a sports fan in a very long time.
So, while it's 50/50 at best for a possible bye into the second round of the playoffs, I'll take the "problems" of wondering when and where the Steelers will play in the postseason over the uncertainty that the fans of the Titans, Bengals, Jets, Broncos, Raiders, Cowboys and Giants face this week.
The Steelers are in the playoffs no matter what. At the end of the day, well, things could be a lot worse.