The Pittsburgh Steelers unbelievably are preparing for a playoff game this week. If you read the preseason prognostications, you wouldn’t have seen that coming. If you saw the way people discussed this team when they sat at 1-3, or at a million other points along the way, you would’ve buried them then and there. Their quarterback was cooked; their offensive line was hopeless; their receivers were immature; their rush defense was the worst the league’s ever seen. And of course, their coach was surely going to jump to the college level.
Some of these critiques were unfounded, of course (after all, there’s not a booster with a big enough check...). Not all of them, though. This was a deeply inconsistent team. And yet, despite knocking off the AFC’s #1 and #3 seeds, and sweeping their two most intense division rivals (eliminating both from the playoffs in successive weeks), it’s been very hard to find a positive comment about the 2021 Steelers. One could be forgiven for thinking that standouts T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward were the only two guys in uniform most weeks.
And yet, here they are. Prepping for the postseason, just like usual.
What will happen next is hard to say, and I’m not in the predictions game. But this late-season reminds me an awful lot of two Steelers seasons from back in the annals.
Chuck Noll’s final playoff season started with losses to the division rival Browns and Bengals by a combined 92-10, including the worst loss in Steelers history (at home in week 1 against Cleveland, 51-0). Noll had nearly retired following the 1988 season, but was convinced to stick around for one more contract by Dan Rooney. In probably the finest coaching job of his esteemed career, the Emperor steadied the ship, and the young young team found their footing But they were inconsistent. At week 10, they sat at 4-6, having been shut out three times, and looked like they should be happy to have found four victories at all.
To fulfill quarterback Bubby Brister’s preseason prediction (“Playoffs ‘89” he famously wrote on the wall at training camp), they’d have to finish nearly perfect, and have a half-dozen breaks at least (or was it a thousand, I can’t remember). So what happened? They finished on a 5-1 run, including a closing 3-0 streak. And those thousand things? They all fell right.
The 9-7 Steelers grabbed the final Wild Card spot, and headed to Houston to take on Jerry Glanville’s Oilers in “The House of Pain.” The division-rival Oilers, incidentally, had blasted the Steelers in the regular season, sweeping them by a combined 50-16, including an embarrassing 27-0 route in Week 7. It didn’t look promising. And at this point, the Steelers had the look of a “just glad to be here” team. The smart money was on Glanville.
But Chuck Noll’s boys punched and punched and punched. Chronic overachiever Merril Hoge ran for 100 yards, Louis Lipps caught a touchdown, and the Steelers took Houston to overtime. A third-year corner named Rod Woodson forced and recovered a fumble to set up Gary Anderson for a 50-yard game-winner. 26-23 Steelers. Somehow.
The following week, they headed to Mile High to take on John Elway’s No. 1 seeded Broncos — who had, incidentally, beaten them 34-7 in Week 9. You know what the smart money said.
And yet, the Steelers punched and punched and punched. Hoge went for 120 against the Broncos No. 1 ranked defense, and the Steelers took a 23-21 lead into the final minutes. A late field goal put Denver up 24-23, with less than two minutes to go. But an injury to HOF center Dermontti Dawson led to a game sealing fumble (bad snap by his replacement) and the Broncos moved on.
Though it ended in heartbreak, this was easily the best story of the year.
The 2004 Steelers had won 14 straight to close out the regular season, with the league’s best defense and Rookie of the Year quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, before sputtering out in a blowout loss in the playoffs. Future Hall of Famer, and long-time face of the franchise, Jerome Bettis, had strongly considered retiring after the postseason loss, but came back for one more year (capable still, but a shadow of his former self).
In 2005, the Steelers were up and down – beating some powerful teams, but also dropping some rough ones. They hit week 12 at 7-5, after a 3-game losing streak handed the division to Cincinnati. They needed to essentially win out to make the playoffs.
And, of course, they did — winning their final four games (beginning with a mudder against the NFC’s No. 2 seeded Chicago Bears, where Bettis pounded out the final 100 yard game of his career). But a winning streak wasn’t enough; by the season’s final week, they had to count on a handful of other teams to lose in order to make the tournament. And, improbably, all of them did; the Steelers snuck into the playoffs with the final seed in the AFC field.
After dispatching the Bengals in the Wild Card Round, they headed to Indianapolis, to take on the No. 1 seeded Colts. Those Colts featured three Hall of Famers (Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and Edge James) and potentially several more (Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne). They were a powerhouse. And they’d blasted the Steelers in week 12 on national TV by a count of 26-7. Indy was favored heavily.
But the Steelers came out punching, and controlled the game from the opening gun — winning 21-18 on Big Ben’s iconic late game tackle. Pittsburgh would of course wind up winning two more, with their Super Bowl title in Detroit, in Bettis’s final game.
You seeing any connections?
Let’s see, we’ve got:
...teams with young talent, which was sometimes a little clumsy but had lots of inner fortitude. [check]
...teams that needed to win out through their last few games, and then have a million other things to fall into place in order to make the dance. [check]
...teams had excellent defenses that were enduring slightly off-years. [check]
...teams would have to face playoff opponents that had embarrassed them in the regular season. [check]
...teams guided by a heart-and-soul who was past his prime, but still knew how to do the job (Noll and Bettis). [check]
...one of those teams (1989) had a sloppy offense that sometimes looked totally hopeless, but turned on the juice when it mattered. [check]
...one of those teams (2005) was coming off of a tremendous previous regular season that had ended in heartbreak, and then followed up by nearly missing the postseason, before sneaking in at the last second. [check]
...and both of those teams found something deep inside during the playoffs, and won their grudge matches, ultimately going further than anyone expected. [hmm, yet to be seen]
The smart money has Kansas City winning in a walk. But the smart money had the Colts beating the Jags on Sunday and the Steelers going home. The smart money had the Ravens winning their home finale and sending Big Ben into retirement with an ‘L’. And really, the smart money was on Houston and Indy in 1989 and 2005. The smart money isn’t prophetic. And I know better than to bet against Ben Roethlisberger, even when he’s a shadow of himself.
Who the hell knows what’s coming. But I’ll be watching. Go Steelers.