Close but no cigar.
What had seemed like the nearly impossible a month earlier when the Steelers were sitting at 5-8 after an annoying home loss to the Ravens—less than a one-percent chance according to the calculators—was now tangibly right in front of them midway through the fourth quarter of what would turn out to be a 28-14 win over the Browns in the regular-season finale at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Bills were putting the finishing touches on a two-score home victory over the Patriots. Meanwhile, in a battle of third-string quarterbacks, the Jets and Dolphins were locked in a 6-6 tie late in regulation.
But those in attendance at Acrisure Stadium, and those who were checking their phones at home, who were waiting for the Jets’ six to change to a higher number on the scoreboard never got their wish. Instead, Miami added the necessary points—three on a field goal—followed by an unnecessary two more on a safety to clinch the seventh and final playoff spot in the AFC.
The Steelers will now be on their couches watching the playoffs with 18 other teams (separately, I’m assuming).
But that’s fine.
Not that it wouldn’t have been cool to see the Steelers make the playoffs. I think any diehard fan with a pulse hopes for that no matter what. It’s just that, well, this is what often happens when you place your fate in the hands of other teams, and other officials, in other stadiums...if you will.
It has often been said—even by me—that you can boil the seasons of most NFL teams down to the outcome of a few plays over the course of a season.
We certainly saw that with Pittsburgh in 2022. What if T.J. Watt didn’t injure his pectoral muscle late in a Week 1 win over the Bengals? What if Ahkello Witherspoon had made a better play on a 50/50 ball in what instead became a touchdown catch by Jacobi Meyers in a 17-14 loss to the Patriots in Week 2?
What if the Steelers held onto a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead over the Jets at Acrisure Stadium in Week 4? What if the defense had made one or two more plays over New York’s final two possessions? What if quarterback Kenny Pickett, whose rookie debut had been pretty darn good up to that point, hadn’t thrown that weird sideline interception?
What if Pickett had made a better decision in the waning seconds of a six-point loss to the Dolphins on Sunday Night Football in Week 7?
What if Mitch Trubisky had thrown one less interception in a 16-14 home loss to the Ravens in Week 14?
Actually, the Steelers’ playoff fate would have been much different had even one of those aforementioned “what ifs” turned out the other way.
That’s life in the NFL, at least for the vast majority of teams.
The Steelers have certainly been one of the vast majority of NFL teams just scrapping to get into the playoffs on an annual basis for at least the past five seasons.
But while they haven’t been among the elites of the NFL since 2017 when they were 13-3, the Steelers also haven’t been one of the handful of teams who have headed into a regular season just knowing they had no shot of doing anything.
2022 sure looked different, especially since the Steelers came into it without Ben Roethlisberger as the face of their franchise for the first time since 2003.
But to the Steelers' credit, they survived the Watt injury, the uncertainty at quarterback, the transition from the veteran Trubisky to the rookie Pickett, the turmoil surrounding head coach Mike Tomlin, the turmoil surrounding offensive coordinator Matt Canada, a lackluster defense over the first two months, and a 2-6 start.
The Steelers survived the way-too-early draft talk and the cries for them to tank for a better pick.
The Steelers never did become one of those teams that had no shot in 2022. Instead, they remained one of many whose fate rested on the outcome of a few plays over the course of the season.
The defense got better after Watt returned from a lengthy absence. The running game, something that was almost non-existent over the first eight weeks, was much more consistent after the bye. The offensive line improved over the course of the season. Pickett seemed to get better and better.
The Steelers didn’t make the playoffs in 2022, but the future sure does look bright after they finished on a 7-2 run to close out the regular season.
I can see the Steelers making the playoffs next season, and they may not even have to put their fate in the hands of teams and officials in other stadiums.