After the Steelers were thoroughly and predictably throttled by the Chiefs in a Wild Card game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night, many immediately said that the NFL’s desire to add a seventh seed to each conference two seasons ago diluted its postseason product and contributed to the lopsided affair America had to sit through.
Talk about predictable.
I get it, the Steelers probably didn’t belong in the playoffs.
They finished the 2021 regular season ranked 23rd in offense (that’s better than I thought, actually) and 24th in defense. Speaking of the defense, it finished dead-last against the run, while the offense, despite the tremendously productive rookie season by running back Najee Harris, ranked 29th in that same category.
Pittsburgh scored 20.2 points per game while surrendering 23.4. With that in mind, it’s probably not too surprising to learn that the team finished the year with a point differential of minus-55 (man, this is depressing).
Yes, the Steelers had the toughest schedule heading into the season, but they spent the majority of their 17-game slate looking overmatched.
How in the blue heck did this team finish 9-7-1, and how was that good enough to qualify for the postseason? Obviously, the second part was the result of the NFL expanding its postseason field by one entrant in each conference, which, according to critics of this move, diluted this once very exclusive tournament.
Yes and no.
Maybe the Steelers didn’t belong in the 2021/22 postseason. Maybe they benefited from the field getting expanded to 14 teams prior to the 2020 campaign.
However, just because a below-average Steelers team benefited from an expanded playoff field, that doesn’t mean the NFL’s playoff field is too big.
What it clearly means is that several teams that were more talented simply bleeped the bed down the stretch and failed to punch their ticket to the dance.
The Ravens are a great example. This team was once 8-3 and looked to be a true contender to make it out of the AFC before losing its final six games. Sure, Baltimore had some real injury problems—including in the secondary, at running back and, most importantly, at quarterback with Lamar Jackson—but John Harbaugh’s crew also suffered from John Harbaugh thanks to his decision to go for two points at the end of regulation twice in three weeks instead of using his world-class kicker to send things into overtime.
What about the Browns? They were so gosh darn talented. They were everyone’s preseason darlings. They, like the Ravens, were supposed to run the AFC North in 2021. Instead of that, they lost twice to those lowly Steelers (come to think of it, so did the Ravens) and finished with an 8-9 record (come to think of it, so did the Ravens).
The Chargers were clearly more talented than Pittsburgh and mostly displayed that in a thrilling win on Sunday Night Football late in the year. However, they lost by 12 points to a four-win Texans team in Week 15 and then lost in overtime to the Raiders to close out the regular season (and their playoff hopes).
And, of course, we have to talk about the Colts, that dark-horse Super Bowl contender, the team nobody was going to want to see in the playoffs, the team that beat up on the 49ers in San Francisco, crushed the Bills in Buffalo, defeated the Patriots by 10 at home and the Cardinals by six in the desert.
How did Indianapolis take advantage of its newfound respect among the NFL’s elite? By losing to the Raiders at home in Week 17 before getting shellacked by the lowly Jaguars on the road in Week 18.
Had any of those previously mentioned teams managed to convert their talent, hype and respect into another victory or two, they would have been the seventh seed in the AFC.
Not the Steelers.
There’s nothing wrong with the NFL’s expanded playoff field. Every year, there are a handful of really good teams that battle it out for the league’s final wildcard spots before some very worthy winners clinch their prizes.
Unfortunately, all of the teams worthy of clinching the seventh seed came up short in 2021, leaving the Steelers’ travel agent with the unexpected responsibility of chartering a team flight to Kansas City.
Finally, when it comes to the NFL’s expanded playoff field, don’t hate the game, hate the players and teams who came up short in 2021.