The Pittsburgh Steelers will begin the 2011-2012 playoffs as a wild card and the 5th seed in the AFC. The team did put together a more than solid 12-4 record in 2011, but it wasn't enough to earn an AFC North title because of two losses to the Ravens, who went on to win the division with the same 12-4 mark.
Still, though, 12-4 isn't too shabby, and at the beginning of the season, if you would've told any player, coach or fan that the Steelers would finish the year with that record, I'm sure most everyone would take it and run, even before knowing when or where the team would play in the postseason.
It just so happens that 12-4 wasn't good enough to earn the familiar bye and postseason playoff game at Heinz Field this season.
I figured that since the Steelers haven't found themselves in the wild card bracket very often, now would be a good time to go back and examine how the team has fared as a wild card over the years, as well as give you a more general history of the NFL wild card format with a little help courtesy of the NFL Hall of Fame's official website.
The NFL first started using a wild card team after the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, but the old AFL started putting non-division winners in its playoff field in 1969. So in essence, the Kansas City Chiefs became the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl after knocking off the Jets and Raiders in the AFL playoffs, and then downing the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
From 1970-1977, the NFL had three divisions in the AFC and three in the NFC, and to make the amount of playoff teams even, the non-division winning team with the best record from each conference made the playoffs as the 4th entrant. However, a wild card team wasn't what it would later become. Yes, a team who made the playoffs this way had to play their postseason games on the road, but they only had to win two games to get to the Super Bowl. The Steelers made the playoffs as a wild card only one time under this format, in 1973, and they lost to the Raiders in Oakland, 33-14 in the divisional playoffs. Only one wild card team advanced to the Super Bowl in the 4 seed format--the 1975 Dallas Cowboys made it to Super Bowl X, but lost to the Steelers, 21-17.
Starting in 1978, the wild card format that we're all familiar with today started to take shape when the NFL added a 2nd wild card team to each conference. The uneven amount of teams created bye weeks for the three division winners as the two wild card teams battled it out in the first round of the playoffs with the 4th seed hosting the 5th seed. Unlike in previous years, however, a wild card team was forced to play three games in order to advance to the Super Bowl. Right at the start of this new format, the Houston Oilers made it to two straight AFC Championship games in 1978 and 1979 as a wild card, but they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers each time. In 1980, the Cowboys made it to the NFC championship as a wild card before losing to the Eagles, but the Oakland Raiders did them one better that season by becoming the first post-merger wild card entrant to advance to and win the Super Bowl. The Raiders knocked off the Oilers, Browns and Chargers on their way to Super Bowl XV, and then blew-out the Eagles in the Superdome, 27-10. The five-team playoff format wasn't too kind to wild card teams for many years after that, but in 1985, the New England Patriots did become the first wild card team to win three-straight road-playoff games and advance to the Super Bowl. The Patriots lost big to the Bears in Super Bowl XX, but it was still a pretty remarkable feat. As for the Steelers, they only made the playoffs as a wild card one time in the 5-team era. In 1989, the Steelers made the playoffs as the 5th seed and made the City of Pittsburgh proud by going to Houston and knocking off the Oilers in overtime, before losing a close game to the Broncos in the divisional round the following week.
In 1990, the NFL added a 3rd wild card team to each conference, and instead of every division winner earning a bye into the second round, only the top two seeds got byes, and the division winner with the 3rd best record had to play the 6th seed in the wild card bracket. This placed more of a premium on getting a week off, and teams like the 1979 Rams, the 1984 Steelers and the 1985 Browns--division winners with very weak records--were very unlikely to benefit from a bye week. The Steelers made the playoffs as a wild card team only once under this format--as the 6th seed in 1993, they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round--but they did have to play in the wild card bracket as the 3rd seed in 1996. The AFC Central Champion Steelers blew out the Colts at Three Rivers Stadium in round one but were blown out themselves a week later at New England. Whether it was parity, or just the odds evening out, teams advancing to and winning the Super Bowl out of the wild card bracket became a little more common under this format. In 1992, the Buffalo Bills advanced to Super Bowl XXVII as the 4th seed in the AFC. In 1997, the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII as a wild card entrant. In 1999, the Tennessee Titans advanced to Super Bowl XXXIV as the 4th seed in the AFC. And the following year, the Baltimore Ravens one-upped their AFC Central division rivals by using the same seed to advance to and win Super Bowl XXXV.
The current playoff format, with four division winners and two wild card teams in each conference, was put into effect in 2002. The Steelers have had to play in the wild card bracket four times in this format--two as a division winner, two as a wild card team--and they were the first team in the history of the NFL to win a Super Bowl after having to play three straight playoff games on the road. In 2005, the Steelers advanced to the playoffs as the 6th seed, and defeated the Bengals, Colts and Broncos on their way to Super Bowl XL in Detroit. The Steelers then vanquished the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10, to earn their first Super Bowl trophy since 1979. Pittsburgh's rare accomplishment has been repeated two-times since. In 2007, the Giants were the 5th seed in the NFC, and they won three-straight road playoff games to advance to Super Bowl XLII, and then upset the unbeaten New England Patriots. And just last year, the Green Bay Packers, seeded 6th in the NFC, took out the Eagles, Falcons and Bears in the playoffs before defeating the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
As you can see by these recent trends, winning the Super Bowl as a wild card team doesn't seem nearly as impossible as it did years ago. And when you factor in the division winners that had to start the playoffs in the wild card round, five of the past six Super Bowls have had participants that had to win three games just to get there. And four of the past six champions started their journey in the first round of the playoffs.
So, even though the Steelers must take the scenic route if they want to have a chance to win their 7th World Championship, recent history--including their own--suggests that it might not be the worst route to take.