The return of Tim Tebow to the NFL has opened a still healing wound among Steelers fans.
A wound that may never heal when retracing what the loss to Tebow may have prevented Pittsburgh from accomplishing.
When news surfaced late Sunday night that Tim Tebow will be joining the Philadelphia Eagles on a veterans minimum contract, my mind went back to the game that, looking back, was the last best chance the 2000's Steelers nucleus had at winning a Super Bowl championship. And after looking at the Steelers potential playoff scenarios following the 29-23 loss to Denver in the 2011 Wild Card Game, it's not a stretch to say that Pittsburgh had a very good chance at winning No.7 in 2011.
The 2011 Steelers may have been the best No.5 playoff seed in AFC history. They won 12 games, which in 2008 and 2010, was good enough for the No.2 seed in the AFC playoff bracket. But despite winning 10 of their last 12 games, the two losses, one to the eventual division champion Ravens and later against the 49ers in a game an injured Ben Roethlisberger had no business playing in, regulated Pittsburgh to a No.5 seed and a long road to get back to the Super Bowl after winning the AFC title in 2010.
But these Steelers had won three road playoff games before, doing so six years earlier. And with the No.1 defense in the NFL paired with Roethlisberger and Pro Bowl receivers Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, a trip to Super Bowl XLVI looked very much possible.
Seemingly everyone was picking the Steelers to breeze past the Broncos, who were were an 8-8 club that lost their last three games of the regular season. Pittsburgh followed suit early, moving the ball at will but having to settle for a pair of field goals and a 6-0 lead heading into the second quarter. But a blitz by Tebow's offense and careless plays and turnovers by the Steelers offense put Pittsburgh in a 20-6 hole at halftime.
While the defense played inspired ball in the second half, Roethlisberger willed the Steelers back into the game. Trailing 22-13 late, Roethlisberger engineered two scoring drives capped off by a game-tying 31-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery with just under four minutes left.
But just as he had on several other occasions that season, Tebow had the final say and performed his magic to pull out a victory his team had no business winning. And thus was the case on this winter Denver night, with Tebow hitting Demaryius Thomas in stride for an 80-yard touchdown, essentially ending the final playoff run for most of the 2000s Steelers.
The worst part of the loss was what it potentially took away, a good shot at Super Bowl trophy No.7. If they would have beaten Denver as expected, Pittsburgh would have been onto New England, a team they dominated on both sides of the ball in a Week 8 win earlier in the season. Led by Big Ben's 365 passing yards, Pittsburgh out-gained the Patriots 427-213 while controlling the ball for over 39 minutes. This was most likely the Patriots' weakest Super Bowl team, and it would have been the Steelers' best chance at defeating them in the playoffs.
Next up would have been a trip to Baltimore for a rematch of the 2010 Divisional Playoffs. While Baltimore did thoroughly undress the Steelers 35-7 at home in Week 1, the Steelers had Baltimore beat in the re-match until Joe Flacco engineered a last-minute, game-winning drive in Week 9. Given the physical nature of the rivalry, Pittsburgh's post-season success against the Ravens and how hard it is to defeat a team three times in a season, the Steelers would have had a great chance at upsetting Baltimore to advance to Super Bowl XLVI.
Super Bowl would have pitted Pittsburgh against the New York Giants, a team the Steelers hadn't faced since the 2008 season. But if the Steelers 23-13 win over the G-Men in York York the following season is any indication of how the Super Bowl would have went, Pittsburgh would have had a great chance at a third title in seven seasons. Pittsburgh out-gained New York 349-182, while Isaac Redman rumbled for 147 yards on 26 carries as Pittsburgh's rushing attack and more complete offense overall would have been a better challenge for the Giants than what New England brought to Super Bowl XLVI.
With the Super Bowl victory following the 2011 season, Roethlisberger would have also received his final vindication as a surefire Hall-of-Fame quarterback, having defeated fellow 2004 draftee, Eil Manning, on the game's biggest stage. Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, James Farrior and the other great Steelers would have retired with three Super Bowl titles and four trips to the Big Game as part of their legacy. And Mike Tomlin would have become the 13th coach to win multiple Super Bowl titles.
Unfortunately, Tim Tebow's fateful overtime pass prevented the Steelers from making any of these hypothetical ideas come to fruition. In retrospect, the 2011 AFC Wild Card Game serves as an eternal warning for how important it is to win your division to secure home playoff games and first round byes, how essential it is to convert on touchdown opportunities early in playoff games and, above all, why you should never underestimate a weaker opponent, especially one with divine intervention on his side.