As the Steelers prepared for their big showdown against Cincinnati last Sunday at Heinz Field, I, like most fans, was a bit nervous about the prospect of the team being eliminated from playoff contention at the hands of the long-time division foe.
I also couldn't stop thinking about the loss to an inferior Raiders team in Week 3, a game in-which Pittsburgh blew a 10 point fourth quarter lead.
I've been following the Steelers quite religiously since 1980, and in previous years when Pittsburgh famously missed the playoffs--other shockers included 1980, 1998, 2006 and 2009--there were a couple of common themes: a home loss to the Bengals, and with the exception of the '98 season, a pretty memorable loss to the Raiders.
Unfortunately, I was justified in my nervousness. Despite the best performance by the Steelers' defense all year-- including six sacks and three takeaways--the offense scored a total of 10 points (including three on two trips inside the red zone), Shaun Suisham missed a 24 yard field goal thanks to a bad snap by Greg Warren, and Ben Roethlisberger threw two critical interceptions that led directly to 10 Cincinnati points in a 13-10 loss that was as bitter a regular season defeat as I can remember in quite awhile.
Now 2012 can join those other "famous" years in-which the Steelers missed the playoffs, and among other critical failures this season, they can look to key mistakes in losses to Cincinnati and Oakland as major reasons why they will be booking vacation destinations immediately following this Sunday's regular season finale against the Browns (Pittsburgh Steelers Tickets).
Below I'd like to do a little review of critical losses against the Bengals and Raiders during those other famous years I mentioned earlier and how they came together to help Pittsburgh miss the postseason:
World Champion Steelers fall to upstart Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium in Week 6
It must have seemed like business as usual for the 4-1 and two-time defending champion Steelers as they prepared to take on a 1-4 Bengals squad in October of 1980. Pittsburgh did suffer its only loss of the season three weeks earlier in Cincinnati, but this was Three Rivers Stadium, a place where the Bengals had never won.
Early in the game, Steelers punter Craiq Colquitt was injured when running for a first down after nearly having his punt blocked, and quarterback Terry Bradshaw, also the back up punter, spent the rest of the afternoon performing double-duty.
John Stallwarth and Lynn Swann were both out due to injury, and Pittsburgh's offense struggled mightily, as the Bengals led 17-0 at the half. The Steelers stormed back with 16 unanswered third quarter points and trailed, 17-16. With less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh's offense took over from its own three yard line, needing a field goal for the win. Not surprisingly, Bradshaw led his charges down field and set kicker Matt Bahr up for a 39 yard field goal with nine seconds remaining. Unfortunately, Bahr, who missed a 47 yard field goal and had an extra point blocked earlier in the game, shanked the kick wide left, and the Bengals walked away with the improbable victory and a season-sweep of the World Champs. Not only was it the first ever victory for the Bengals at Three Rivers, it was Pittsburgh's first home loss after winning 18 in a row.
I actually found video of this game on Youtube (you should check it out), and I wonder if the fans in attendance that day realized they hadn't just witnessed an incredible upset, but the beginning of the end of the Steelers dynasty.
If they weren't convinced that day, maybe what transpired a week later woke people up to reality.
Steelers suffer second straight home loss to the eventual World Champion Raiders on Monday Night Football
The Raiders came into Three Rivers on a Monday night, looking to knock off their long-time rivals. However, the Steelers, 10 point favorites, were still the Super Bowl Champions and stormed out to a 10-0 lead. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh's defense wasn't the dominant force it was even in the late 70s, and that, combined with the Steelers habit of turning the football over in those days--the offense committed a combined 94 turnovers in '79 and '80-- proved to be the team's undoing as Oakland scored 28 first half points on the way to a 45-34 victory.
The Steelers would lose a third straight game a week later to fall to 4-4, and this proved too much to overcome as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971. Pittsburgh would go on to make the postseason a few more times in the early 80s, but the Super Bowl years soon gave way to a period of decline, and the Steelers only made the playoffs one time from 1985-1991.
Bengals, 2-12, walk into Three Rivers Stadium and eliminate the Steelers from playoff contention for the first time since 1991
Fast-forward to nearly two-decades later. After struggling in Chuck Noll's last few years on the sidelines, the Steelers became Super Bowl contenders once again in the 90s under new head coach and hometown boy Bill Cowher. Cowher led his team to the playoffs six straight seasons from 1992-1997--including five division titles, three trips to the AFC Championship game and an appearance in Super Bowl XXX.
The 1998 season appeared to be on the same postseason track after Pittsburgh jumped out to a familiar 3-1 start. However, something seemed off with the Steelers, and they lost a Week 5 contest in Cincinnati when Neil O'Donnell, of all people, led a last minute touchdown drive to secure a win for the hapless Bengals.
Even though the Steelers struggled more than in previous seasons, they looked healthy enough after a home victory over first place Jacksonville pushed them to 7-4 and only a game back in the AFC Central standings.
But as I said, something seemed amiss with the '98 Steelers, and they dropped their next three games--including the infamous "coin toss" game a few days later on Thanksgiving Day--to fall to 7-7.
Pittsburgh was still alive for a playoff spot when the struggling Bengals came to Three Rivers Stadium for a Week 15 match-up. Unfortunately, Kordell Stewart's season-long struggles continued at quarterback as Cincinnati jumped out to a 13-0 lead. Mike Tomczak eventually replaced Stewart in the game, but it was the defense that led a comeback, thanks to touchdown returns from Carnell Lake and Chris Oldham. It wasn't enough though, as Cincinnati scored nine fourth quarter points to walk away with the victory, the season sweep, and despite only finishing 3-13 that year, the satisfaction of ending the Steelers six-year playoff run.
Ricardo Colclough's fumbled punt leads to Week 3 home loss to Cincinnati and a fall from grace for the World Champion Steelers
Steeler Nation was riding high in 2006 after the team captured its first Lombardi trophy since the 1979 season. And the celebration continued all throughout the summer, even after Ben Roethlisberger's near fatal motorcycle accident in June and his emergency appendectomy right before the season opener.
Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a season-opening victory over Miami. In Week 2, Roethlisberger returned on a Monday night against the Jaguars, but unfortunately, Pittsburgh lost its first game since December of 2005.
Nobody was too concerned, and the celebration figured to continue at Heinz Field in Week 3 against the Bengals. Cincinnati may have been 2-0, but the Steelers were the World Champions and looking to prevent the Bengals from winning their second straight game at Heinz Field.
It was a back and forth struggle, but Pittsburgh had a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter when Ricardo Colclough muffed a punt that the Bengals recovered at the Steelers nine yard line. One play later, Cincinnati scored to take the lead for good in a 28-20 victory.
The loss dropped Pittsburgh to 1-2 and two games back of the Bengals.
Fast-forward to Week 8
Ben Roethlisberger returns from concussion to throw four interceptions in 20-13 loss to the Raiders in the Black Hole
At 2-4, the Steelers desperately needed to get well if they were going to rebound and get back to the playoffs to defend their Super Bowl crown. What better team to face than a struggling 1-5 Oakland team?
Unfortunately, Roethlisberger wasn't himself and threw four interceptions in the game--including two which were returned for touchdowns--and Pittsburgh would go on to lose despite out-gaining the Raiders, 360-98.
The victory by the Raiders was their last of the season as they would end the year with nine straight losses to finish at 2-14.
The Steelers would finish the first half of the season at 2-6, and even though they rallied to win six of eight down the stretch--including an overtime victory in Week 17 over Cincinnati that knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs--the defending champions would miss the postseason with an 8-8 record.
Bengals win sloppy Week 10 game at Heinz Field to complete season sweep over World Champion Steelers
After getting off to a 1-2 start--including a last second loss in Cincinnati in Week 3--the Steelers won five games in a row and were 6-2 when the Bengals came to town for a Week 10 rematch.
Pittsburgh scored first on a Jeff Reed field goal, but Bernard Scott returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown--the third of what would be four kickoff returns against the Steelers in five weeks--and this proved to be the difference in the game as the teams traded field goals the rest of the way in an 18-12 victory for the Bengals and a season sweep for the eventual AFC North Champions.
The Steelers would go on to lose the next two games in overtime--including a game in Baltimore minus Roethlisberger, who sat out with yet another concussion--to fall to 6-5.
Pittsburgh's playoff chances still appeared pretty decent, especially with the 3-8 Raiders visiting Heinz Field in early December.....or so we thought.
Hometown boy Bruce Gradkowski leads Raiders to last second victory at Heinz Field
If ever there was a game where the Steelers could re-gain their footing and end a three game losing-skid, it was on a cold afternoon at Heinz Field in early December against the 3-8 Oakland Raiders. Surprisingly, though, Pittsburgh's struggles continued, as the offense produced only 10 points through three quarters despite having Roethlisberger back in the lineup. Fortunately, the defense was up to the task, at least early on, and only gave up two Sebastian Janikowski field goals heading into the fourth quarter.
Then, the flood gates opened, and the two teams combined for 35 fourth quarter points. The Steelers appeared to have the game in hand when Roethlisberger connected with Hines Ward for an 11 yard touchdown pass to take a 24-20 lead with 1:56 remaining.
But Pittsburgh area native Bruce Gradkowski led Oakland on a 10 play, 88 yard drive that ended with an 11 yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy with nine seconds left to give the Raiders the upset win, and further damage the Steelers' playoff chances. On the drive, rookie defensive back Joe Burnett dropped what would have been a game-sealing interception, and safety Ryan Mundy was flagged for a personal foul.
The Steelers would go on to lose a fifth game in a row to Cleveland a few days later on Thursday Night Football before rallying for three straight wins to end the season at 9-7. However, it was too little, too late, and for a third straight time, Pittsburgh would miss the playoffs a year after winning the Super Bowl.
I don't know if the Bengals will ever overcome their "Bungals" stigma, or if the Raiders will ever get any satisfactory revenge for the Immaculate Reception, but both teams have certainly played important roles in some of the most agonizing and painful Steelers seasons of the last three decades--including 2012.