It was the evening of December 11, 2005. The Steelers had just knocked off Brian Urlacher and the Bears at Heinz Field earlier in the day to begin an epic journey that wouldn’t end until team owner Dan Rooney hoisted the Lombardi trophy at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, some two months later.
Yes, Pittsburgh’s incredible playoff run as the sixth seed in the AFC all the way to Super Bowl XL champion was the kind of magic that most of their die-hard fans will cherish forever.
But it almost didn’t happen.
While the Steelers win over Chicago reignited their season after a three-game losing-streak dropped them to 7-5 and on the outside looking in at the postseason, a lot of work still needed to be done.
Even if the Steelers had won out, they still wouldn’t have qualified for the playoffs without some losses from other teams in other stadiums. One of those teams that needed to lose was the Kansas City Chiefs, which brings us back to that evening of December 11, 2005.
The Chiefs, who entered the day with a one-game lead over the Steelers in the wildcard standings, appeared poised to hold onto that advantage, thanks to a fourth-down stop against the Cowboys, who were driving for the winning score in the waning moments of a Week 14 match-up in Dallas.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, their defense was called for holding, Dallas was given a fresh set of downs, and Kansas City went on to lose the game to fall to 8-5.
Pittsburgh ultimately finished one game ahead of the Chiefs in the standings and qualified for the playoffs by the slimmest of margins (KC would have won a tiebreaker based on a better conference mark), before going on to make NFL history.
But, as I alluded to earlier, it never would have happened, if not for a holding call in a game involving two other teams.
I open up this piece with that little trip down memory lane to illustrate just how lucky both the Chiefs and 49ers are to be participating in Super Bowl LIV this Sunday evening at 6:18 p.m. ET.
Yes, it does seem like the football gods got it right this time, what with San Francisco, the number one seed in the NFC and an all around great football team, facing off against a Kansas City squad led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, by all accounts the new face of the NFL.
But as good as these two football teams are—and, to be completely clear, they are very, very good—they could have very easily been watching this Sunday’s game at home like the rest of us.
The Chiefs entered Week 17 looking very much like a team that would have to start the postseason as the number three seed in the AFC. The Patriots, who lost to Kansas City at home just weeks earlier, still had the upper-hand for the number two seed and a bye. All they had to do was knock off a Dolphins team that once looked like the worst in all of football, one that lost to a Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers team by 10 points earlier in the year.
The Chiefs handled their business at home against the Chargers in their final game, but so what, right? New England losing at home to the Dolphins? But that’s exactly what happened, as Miami scored the game-winning touchdown with mere seconds left to knock the Patriots down to the number three seed and elevate Kansas City to the AFC’s number two spot.
As for the 49ers, they entered their final regular season game facing this proposition: Defeat the Seahawks on the road to clinch the NFC West and the top seed or lose to Seattle and fall all the way down to the fifth spot.
Fast-forward to the end of the game, and the Seahawks had a first and goal from inside the 10. But just when the 49ers looked to be in trouble, they held off Seattle and clinched everything that was to be clinched heading into the postseason.
The 49ers looked pretty methodical in their two postseason home victories, while the Chiefs needed some Mahomes magic to storm back from large deficits in each one of theirs.
But I doubt the 49ers would have looked so dominant and methodical if they were forced to win three road playoff games en route to an NFC title. In fact, I doubt they would have even come close. As for the Chiefs? It’s hard to imagine them bouncing back from huge deficits on the road.
And let’s also not forget that Kansas City benefited from Tennessee knocking off the top-seeded Ravens in the divisional round, thus guaranteeing the Chiefs two games at Arrowhead Stadium.
Yes, I truly believe the Chiefs and 49ers were the two best teams in football heading into the postseason, but as history tells us, sometimes, it’s not always the two best teams that advance to the Super Bowl. It’s the teams with the most luck on their side.