As the NFL begins its quest to crown a 47th Super Bowl champion this Saturday with "Wild Card Weekend," it will be doing so without the Steelers for the first time since 2009.
I joined my uncle at a local watering hole on Sunday to watch the Steelers take on Cleveland in the final game of the 2012 regular season. This establishment had a pretty sweet backroom, complete with a projection TV and nice, comfy seats, and that's where we watched the game unfold.
The high-definition was great, the beer was cheap and the food was free. For a Steelers game that didn't involve a Heinz Field luxury box, it was a pretty cool way to watch some football.
I cheered during the good parts, jeered during the bad ones, and eventually celebrated a 24-10 Steelers victory. However, all the cheering and jeering just seemed like going through the motions for me as I knew the game had no playoff-implications, and the guys I was cheering for would be going away for the next six months (or forever in the case of some long-time vets).
January football is awesome, and for the first time in three seasons, Pittsburgh won't be a part of the NFL playoff scene.
Sunday's game had some pretty nice storylines that certainly would have been magnified had the victory brought about a playoff berth.
Plaxico Burress reeled in a 12 yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger with 3:20 left in the game to all but guarantee victory. As recently as November, who could have predicted Burress, unsigned and out of football at the time, would score the team's final touchdown of the regular season?
Imagine if that touchdown catch not only sealed a victory over the Browns but sealed a playoff spot for Pittsburgh.
Remember the hit by Lawrence Timmons on Cleveland quarterback Thaddeus Lewis in the final seconds? Not the one that caused a fumble, the play before where he simply unloaded on the rookie quarterback.
It was maybe the perfect example of a clean but vicious hit, and I can only imagine how much we'd be talking about that hit right now if it was the exclamation point to a playoff-clinching victory.
The Steelers certainly had their fair share of injuries in 2012-- including Troy Polamalu, who missed the majority of the season with a torn calf-- but seeing Polamalu flying around the field on Sunday, looking as healthy as he has in about two years certainly made me yearn for a spot in the postseason; how many magical playoff moments has No. 43 provided over the years?
Had the Steelers made the playoffs this season, it would have been as a 9-7 wild card team. A lot of people will tell you a playoff berth is meaningless unless it culminates in a Super Bowl victory, and I'll counter that sentiment by saying the only meaningless playoff berth is one that never occurs.
The month of January is normally pretty harsh in places like Pittsburgh. It was about 15 degrees this morning, it took me about 10 minutes to scrape the ice off my car windows, and like most other mornings since the snow started falling about a week ago, my seat got wet when I opened door. Just miserable.
It sure would be nice to have a playoff game to look forward to this weekend.
This time of year just seems more magical when the Steelers are involved in the playoffs. You can distract yourself from the snow and cold by talking about the game with your buddies and, in years like this one, convincing yourself Pittsburgh has what it takes to run the table as a wild card and make it back to the Super Bowl.
"They did it in '05. They can do it this year. You just have to get in the tournament and anything is possible. The Steelers are a team nobody would want to face right now, not with Troy flying around like a maniac and Timmons looking like a beast!"
Maybe wishful thinking, but that's what the postseason does; it fosters hope and a positive attitude even the most cynical fan will adopt.
Speaking of that magical 2005 season, I began attending weekly tapings of "The Joey Porter Show" right around the time the Steelers started making their playoff push, and I didn't stop until after they clinched a berth in Super Bowl XL.
One of the things I remember about going to the show every week (it was produced at a bar in the Strip District Tuesday evenings during the season) was how the crowds grew with each passing victory, as the team inched ever closer to a championship.
At the beginning of the playoff run, I was able to sit right off camera and watch the show. By the time Pittsburgh wrapped up the AFC title, I could barely fit in the door.
That's the beauty of the postseason. In addition to hope and excitement, it also engenders a feeling of family and community, and that's something that money simply cannot buy.
An NFL playoff victory is something to cherish and savor for weeks and months, and it's a feeling Steelers fans will be deprived of for at least three calender years.
In recent seasons, Pittsburgh has gone from a Super Bowl appearance to a first round playoff exit to no postseason at all.
We can debate this entire offseason about whether or not the Steelers are in decline, but there is no doubt the postseason excitement for their fans has seen a decline in recent years.
Right about now, 9-7 and white jerseys all throughout the playoffs doesn't seem so bad.
Maybe next season, we'll get that magical feeling back.