A couple of weeks ago, as I watched the final seconds of the AFC Championship game unfold, I couldn't help but realize just how much luck is involved in winning a championship. There was the Ravens' Lee Evans with the game-winning touchdown in his hands for a brief moment before having it knocked out at the last second. Just moments later, Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the game and sent it into overtime. Instead, it was the New England Patriots who were off to Super Bowl XLVI while the Ravens players had to be thinking, "you mean we signed up for this?"
Even before those events transpired, the Ravens had to be thinking that. They spent the entire 2011 season trying to get to where their arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, had been so many times in recent years--the AFC Championship game--but instead of playing it at home like Pittsburgh has been able to do so many times over the years, there they were getting ready to face Tom Brady's bunch at Gillette Stadium.
And that brings me to the point of this post. In my lifetime, I've been lucky enough to see the Pittsburgh Steelers play in five Super Bowls, and in every single one of them, there was at least a little bit of uncontrollable good fortune that helped them get there, and maybe even in some cases, win it all.
Super Bowl XLV
Just last year, the Steelers were in the exact same position as the Ravens were in 2011. Pittsburgh finished the 2010 season with a 12-4 record and had a bye into the second round of the playoffs. After the Steelers survived their divisional round showdown with the Ravens, it seemed to be an almost foregone conclusion that the team would have to travel to New England for the AFC Championship game to face a Patriots team that had thoroughly defeated them on a Sunday night in November during the regular season. For their divisional round playoff match up, the Patriots were taking on a New York Jets team that they had manhandled, 45-3, in early December. But, shockingly, the Jets pulled off the upset, and instead of the Steelers having to play a team that they had very little success against over the years, they got to host the New York Jets at Heinz Field for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The Steelers jumped out to a 24-0 lead, and held on for a 24-19 win before the home folks. Would things have been different if the Steelers played in Foxboro for the AFC title instead of Heinz? I guess we'll never know.
Super Bowl XLIII
The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers captured their record sixth Lombardi trophy with a very thrilling, 27-23, victory over the upstart Arizona Cardinals. Just like the 2010 team, the '08 Steelers entered the playoffs as the number two seed in the AFC. The Tennessee Titans had the first seed by virtue of their 31-14 defeat of Pittsburgh in the second-to-last game of the regular season. The Titans were surely the favorites in the AFC going into the playoffs, and beings that the Steelers suffered more than their share of ugly losses at Tennessee over the years, the thought of having to travel to LP Field for the AFC Championship game couldn't have been very appealing to the team, and certainly not for the fans; the Joe Nedney game still makes my skin crawl.
Fortunately, before the Steelers even played their first playoff game, the Titans were knocked out of the divisional round by the Baltimore Ravens. And after Pittsburgh took care of the Chargers the next day, the AFC Championship game was set for Heinz Field the following week. The Steelers went on to defeat their division rivals, 23-14, for their seventh AFC Championship.
In the Super Bowl, the Steelers defeated a Cardinals team that finished the regular season with a 9-7 record. And even though Arizona gave Pittsburgh all that it could handle, I often wonder how things may have turned out against a different NFC representative. In the NFC Championship game, the Cardinals narrowly defeated an Eagles team that thoroughly whipped up on the Steelers in a week 3 match-up. Philadelphia's defense was so dominant that day, they finished with more sacks (9) than the Steelers had points (6). Beings that the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers may have had the worst offensive line ever for a Super Bowl team, it could have been a long day in Tampa if the Eagles were the Steelers opponent. And let's not forget about the New York Giants. They were the defending Super Bowl champions, and they, too, defeated Pittsburgh during the regular season. It was a close, exciting game that the Steelers could have very easily won, but they didn't, and the Giants probably would have been a slight favorite in the Super Bowl. Fortunately, the Eagles took New York out in the divisional round, and they in-turn were vanquished by the Cardinals the following week. So, once again, I guess we'll never know.
Super Bowl XL
This is my favorite Steelers Super Bowl, and maybe the best example of good fortune helping a team get to where it needed to go. There is no doubt that the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers were rolling once the playoffs started. After surviving an early 10-0 deficit in the wild card game against the Bengals, they dominated the rest of the way and won going away, 31-17. Pittsburgh never trailed against the Colts the following week, but man, did they need some good fortune to survive that game. The Steelers were ahead, 21-10, with barely under a quarter to play and appeared to have the game salted away when Troy Polamalu stepped in front of a Peyton Manning pass for what looked to everyone in America to be a pretty obvious interception. However, after Tony Dungy desperately challenged the play (can't blame him, might as well, right?), the referee agreed with Dungy's challenge in one of the most bizarre reversals in NFL history. The Colts capitalized on the reversal by taking the ball down the field and scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion to make it, 21-18. But after the Steelers defense snuffed out what appeared to be the Colts last gasp with barely over a minute to play, Pittsburgh had the ball first and goal and looked poised to score the clinching-touchdown. Unfortunately, Jerome Bettis fumbled, and Nick Harper picked up the football and took off the other way. He probably should have scored on the play, but for whatever reason, he did some weird zigging when he should have zagged, and this allowed Ben Roethlisberger to trip him up. It was later discovered that Harper's wife stabbed the Colts' corner in the knee during an argument just the day before. Would Harper have scored if he and his wife had done a better job of communicating? I guess we'll never know. Anyway, the Colts made it all the way to the Steelers 29 yard line, and the very accurate Mike Vanderjagt was set to send the game into overtime with a 46 yard field goal. Just like the Patriots two Sundays ago, the Steelers had basically no control over their own fate. It all came down to a kick, and if my memory serves me right, Vanderjagt didn't miss a kick from that distance at home the entire year. Fortunately for the Bus, not only did the Indy kicker miss, he missed it by a mile!
Anyway, you know the rest of the story, the Steelers went on to win their next two games to capture their first Super Bowl in 26 seasons.
Despite all the wacky stuff that occurred in the Indy game, the Steelers wouldn't even have been in the playoffs to experience it if it wasn't for a defensive holding call in a game involving the Chiefs and Cowboys on December 11, 2005. The Steelers had just ended a three-game losing streak with a victory over the Bears at Heinz Field to climb to 8-5, but they were still on the outside of the AFC playoff picture and needed a ton of help to get in as the sixth seed. The Chargers helped the cause by losing to the Dolphins at home to fall to 8-5. The Steelers held a tiebreaker over San Diego, but the Chiefs not only held a tiebreaker over Pittsburgh, they entered the week with an 8-4 record. The Cowboys were trailing the Chiefs, 28-24, in the closing moments, but Dallas had the ball deep in Chiefs' territory and had a chance to take the lead in the final minute. The Cowboys were stopped on 4th and goal, and it appeared that the Chiefs would hold on for the victory. I was watching that game, and for a split-second, I thought, "oh well, at least the Chargers lost." But before I could even finish my thought, the referee was signaling defensive holding against the Chiefs, and the Cowboys had a fresh set of downs. Dallas eventually converted to knock off Kansas City, 31-28. The Chiefs also went on to lose to the Giants the following week, and the Steelers stayed ahead of them by winning out and clinched the final playoff spot. Everytime I think of the Steelers magical Super Bowl XL run, I get goosebumps knowing that it wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't for that holding call in that Cowboys/Chiefs game.
Super Bowl XXX
The story of the 1995 Pittsburgh Steelers was pretty awesome. The team had rebounded from a 3-4 start to finish the year at 11-5. They were the AFC Central Champions and were the number two seed in the AFC once the playoffs began. Just like in '08 and '10, however, they were able to host the AFC Championship game after the Cinderella Colts knocked off the top seeded Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs. I know that, just like his long-time friend Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer never met an AFC title game that he liked, but still, '95 could have been a much different story had the Steeler traveled to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Chiefs for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
And, also, let's not forget about Colts receiver Aaron Bailey. He had Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary pass sitting on his chest for a very brief second on the last play of the 1995 AFC Championship game. Had he been able to securely wrap his hands around that football, well, it would have made the 1992 NLCS loss by the Pirates seem like an exhibition game in-terms of heartbreak. Fortunately, we never got to find out.
Super Bowl XIV
The 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers captured their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons, but they may not have even made it to the game if instant replay had been in-place for the AFC Championship game against the Houston Oilers. Late in the third quarter, with the Steelers ahead, 17-10, the Oilers appeared to tie the score on a Dan Pastorini to Mike Renfro touchdown pass. I can see where the Oilers and their fans would be very upset with this call--it obviously was a touchdown--but in retrospect, seeing it at full speed, it's easy to see where an official could have missed the call. If there had been instant replay, the call on the field would have more than likely been overturned. I guess we'll never know. However, as Mean Joe Greene said, "give them the touchdown. We'll still kick your butts." A touchdown there would have only tied the game, and it's easy for fans to talk in "absolutes" today and say that the Oilers would have gone to the Super Bowl. But even in a tie game, they still would have needed to score some more points, and Pittsburgh shut them out the rest of the way and won, 27-13.
As for the Super Bowl itself, the '79 Steelers took on a Los Angeles Rams team that finished the regular season with a 9-7 record. When the playoffs began, the Dallas Cowboys were the number one seed in the NFC, and beings that they were the two-time defending NFC Champions, and winners of Super Bowl XII just two years earlier, they were the odds-on favorites to make it back to the Big Game for a third-straight-time. The Cowboys had met the Steelers in Super Bowl XIII just a year earlier, and that game could have easily gone in Dallas' favor had a few plays gone the other way. Who knows what may have happened had there been a re-match. I know the Rams were one of the more consistent teams of the 70's, and their 9-7 record was due mainly to some early season injuries and front-office unrest, but 9-7 is 9-7. Some have said that you could sort of see the Steelers dynasty eroding during Super Bowl XIV, and had the Cowboys been their opponents in that game, the history of the 70's might look a lot different today. The fact that the Steelers missed the playoffs the following two seasons while the Cowboys made it to the next three NFC Championship games lends even more credence to that thought. I guess we'll never know.
In conclusion, this isn't to suggest that the Steelers have gotten as far as they have over the years simply by luck. Like Chuck Noll once said, "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," and the Steelers have been the most successful franchise in the NFL since 1972. When you make the playoffs as many times as the Steelers have over the last four decades, and when you can fill your roster with players named Greene, Lambert, Bradshaw, Harris, Woodson, Bettis, Harrison, Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Ward, well, you're bound to get "lucky" more times than other teams.