The most difficult of defeats come when you know that your favorite team has the potential to be the best, or at least better than a specific opponent they face on their path to the Super Bowl, and they still fall short of their ultimate goal. Sometimes these losses come from one major play that if one player would have done one thing right, maybe the result would have been different. Others come from a slew of unusual mistakes from some of the team's most significant contributors throughout that specific season; and still some come from the team failing to cope with the loss of some of their most significant contributors in a playoff game. However it happened, there have been heartbreaking moments for the fans in the City of Champions.
So what's the worst? Here's a list we made up for you to vote on:
The 1976 Steelers dealt with arguably the most turmoil that any Steelers team had to face in the history of the franchise; but it was their resilience to their turmoil that made this season one of the most legendary in Pittsburgh that did not result in a Super Bowl trophy.
The Steelers started slow in 1976 coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl championships, finishing their first five games at 1-4 and losing Terry Bradshaw to injury for an extended period of time. In those days of a 14 game season, starting 1-4 was often a death sentence to the team's playoff hopes. However rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek (whose 6-0 record as a rookie QB was the best for many years) came in and was able to help a Steelers offense led by Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier score just enough for one of the nastiest defenses the Steelers ever had.
That year the Steelers' defense posted five shutouts, a single season record that still stands to this day. This nasty edition of the Steel Curtain helped the team win ten straight games, including a playoff victory over the Baltimore Cotls to the score of 40-14. In the nine consecutive regular season wins that the team had to tally to make the playoffs, the Steelers would only allow 28 points throughout a nine-game span.
However the AFC Championship game would see a bewildered Steelers' offense without two of its best contributors throughout the season missing, as both Bleier and Harris were not able to play in the game against the team's greatest AFC rival, the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders finally overcame their biggest obstacle to eventually win their first Super Bowl in franchise history in Super Bowl XI, and would even put the score of the Steelers' game on their Super Bowl rings afterwards.
2. 1984 AFC Championship to the Miami Dolphins:
The 1984 Steelers were not considered one of the best in the franchise's history. They finished 9-7 thanks to Mark Malone taking over at quarterback and posting a 6-3 record as a starter. The team was led by four-time Super Bowl champion wide receiver, John Stallworth, and new-comer wide receiver Louis Lipps who posted 11 and 10 touchdowns that season, Stallworth leading the team with 1395 yards receiving. Donnie Shell led a different generation of a Steelers secondary with seven interceptions that season, along with Sam Washington and Dwayne Woodruff who would record six and five interceptions respectively. While the front seven was led by Mike Merriwether who tallied 15 sacks that season and was helped by Edmund Nelson who record seven sacks, and Bryant Hinkle who brought the quarterback down 5.5 times.
Despite barely making the playoffs at 9-7, the Steelers made a good run to have a shot at the Super Bowl and were the only team to defeat the San Francisco 49ers that season, who would go on to defeat the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. Were it not for this team, Tom Brady's 18-1 season would have been less significant because there already would have been a team to won a Super Bowl with a 19-0 record, and that would have been Joe Montana's 49ers.
What might have made this the most difficult playoff loss to take however was that Dan Marino, a native of Pittsburgh and NCAA superstar for the University of Pittsburgh, beat them after they passed on him in the 1983 draft for Gabe Rivera. Marino went on to lose the Super Bowl that year and never appear in it again. Arguably the greatest NFL player to ever come from Pittsburgh might have been able to win some Super Bowls with Pittsburgh if things went differently, and 1984 was the ultimate culmination of that realization with Marino taking out Pittsburgh, who was the only team that could beat the eventual Super Bowl champions that year.
3. 1994 AFC Championship game loss to the San Diego Chargers:
This loss was especially painful because this was looking more and more like the year Bill Cowher's team would prove to be the best in the league. The Steelers finally got over hump of winning their first playoff game when they beat the Cleveland Browns 29-9 in the divisional round. The Steelers came up one play short of reaching the Super Bowl that year when Neil O'Donnell short-armed a potential touchdown pass on a fourth down play to Barry Foster that would be tipped away as the Steelers lost the game. It was the first game all season the Steelers would lose after holding a lead going into the second half.
The Steelers were the first seed in the AFC this season after going 12-4. Several great players were on this team such as Gregg Lloyd, Yancey Thigpen, Ernie Mills, Barry Foster and others, but also hall of fame players such as Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene and Dermontii Dawson.
The Chargers would go onto lose to the San Francisco 49ers by a large deficit, leaving many to wonder if the Steelers would have fared any better.
4. 1995 Super Bowl loss to the Dallas Cowboys:
The following season Pittsburgh would defeat the Chargers in the regular season and overcome the AFC championship hurdle in a narrow victory over Jim Harbaugh and the Indianapolis Colts. The problem was they would go up against the team of the 90's in the Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers would put up a heck of a fight with their superstar cornerback Rod Woodson returning after spending the season recovering from an ACL tear. The Steelers would fight back from being down 13 points in the second half, and narrow their deficit to three points. After the Steelers' recovered a surprise onside kick, the offense was able to score a touchdown and the defense forced a huge punt late in the game.
However Neil O'Donnell would seal his legacy as a Pittsburgh Steeler with his second blatantly off pass that would result in an interception by Cowboys' defensive back Larry Brown. This one proved fatal to the Steelers' Super Bowl hopes, and the Steelers' best chance at a Super Bowl in the 90's faded away.
5. 1997 AFC Championship game loss to the Denver Broncos:
This version of the Steelers was seeing a new weapon emerge in the quarteback version of Kordell Stewart, AKA "Slash," a triple threat of a player whose speed and throwing ability made him a headache for most defenses. Unfortunately Stewart's mistakes on the field would also lead to headaches for Steelers' fans as he would score two touchdowns but throw three interceptions that would prove costly as the Steelers lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos, 21-24.
6. 2001 AFC Championship game loss to the New England Patriots:
The Steelers' revitalized defense in 2001 with sack leader Jason Gildon at 12, as well as fellow pass rushe Joey Porter with nine sacks. Rookie Kendrell Bell would also add nine sacks, while fellow rookie Casey Hampton added a new presence of domination to the interior of the defensive line. This was also the emergence of the main defensive line of the 2000s with Aaron Smith as a second year player, Kimo von Oelhoffen as the veteran and Hampton as a rookie. Smith and Hampton would be part of the nucleus that would win two Super Bowls in the future.
The 2001 Steelers finished 12-4 and looked closed to unstoppable at times during the season. Kordell Stewart was back on track as a quarterback and earned Pro Bowl honors, while a young Hines Ward had emerged with second year player Plaxico Burress to be great targets for Stewart. All this in front of a lightning-thunder tandem of Amos Zeroue and Jerome Bettis in the backfield made for a fun season to watch the Steelers.
The Steelers would lose by 7 in the AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, who despite missing Tom Brady were able to get up 21-3 in the second half thanks in large-part to a punt return touchdown by Troy Brown and a blocked field goal which would be returned for a touchdown as well. Though many would put the blame solely on Stewart after the loss, many costly mistakes were seen across the team. Joey Porter dropped what would have been a pick-six of an interception inside the Patriots' red zone, and Plaxico Burress would fumble a big reception while he was running free down the field due to his own carelessness.
This would be the best last chance the Steelers would see in the Kordell Stewart era for a Super Bowl after Tommy Maddox would replace him for the next two seasons.
7. 2004 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots:
The Steelers had a magical run in 2004 with rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who shattered former Steelers' quarterback of consecutive wins for a rookie quarterback when he went 14-0 for the Steelers in the regular season. Roethlisberger's explosion onto the NFL scene involved several major victories over tough teams that season, including both eventual conference champions in the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in consecutive weeks.
His assortment of weapons in Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El and an aging Jerome Bettis made for a fun season to watch how good this rookie could be in the AFC. It also helped having a very talented defense on the other side of the ball with the second year version of Troy Polamalu who made his name known that season with multiple interceptions returned for touchdowns and his ability to generate big plays.
Despite the emergence of several key pieces to the future nucleus that would lead the Steelers' franchise to two more Super Bowl victories, the Steelers fell short to the New England Patriots as they committed four turnovers. Ben Roethlisberger has his second straight poor playoff performance after winning all of his regular season appearances and many thought Jerome Bettis' chances at a Super Bowl win in his career were all but lost at the time.
8. 2010 Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers:
After a the disappointing 9-7 2009 season while the team missed Troy Polamalu to injury, the Steelers bounced back and had a great year in 2010 as they won the division despite missing Ben Roethlisberger for four games to start the season. Troy Polamalu would earn Defensive Player of the Year honors with his seven interceptions and various other big plays that he would make. Roethlisberger's weapons in Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and the rookie Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were proving to be a good mix of experience and youth a the receiver position. Wallace's ten touchdowns put him on the map as one of the fastest weapons in the NFL, while Brown's big-play ability was evidenced in his play both in the playoffs and on special teams.
It looked as if the Steelers were on their way to an unprecedented seventh Super Bowl until they got behind the Green Bay Packers 21-3 in the first half of Super Bowl 45. The absence of rookie Pro Bowl Center, Maurkice Pouncey, was noticed as Roethlisberger had to adjust to his abscence in the line's interior. Though the team battled back valiantly to bring their deficit to as low as three points, there was no magical drive to end the game like two years before, and the Steelers their second Super Bowl.
9. 2011 AFC Wildcard to the Denver Broncos:
This loss got on the list simply because of how it happened; Tim Tebow was the talk of the NFL that season as pundits debated constantly whether the wins the team had with him under-center were because of his last minute heroics or in spite of his lack of consistent performance.
When the Steelers had to travel to Denver to play, they sat out their starting free safety, Ryan Clark, because of his past experiences in Denver with his sickle cell trait. This year was the beginning of seeing the Steelers' elite defensive nucleus falling apart, as injuries plagued the team all season. Though LaMarr Woodley stepped up in the abscence of James Harrison earlier in the season when he led the team with three sacks on Tom Brady, he too would become injured and the team's pass rush was no longer an asset, but a liability.
This allowed Tebow to complete 10 of 21 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for one more touchdown. The most infamous of those ten completions came in overtime, after the Steelers battled back from a late deficit to tie the game, when Tebow hit Demariyus Thomas for an 80 yard touchdown pass in walk-off fashion. It would be the last playoff game for the nucleus that brought many great games in the late 2000's.
10. 2014 AFC Wildcard loss to the Baltimore Ravens:
This loss stung for what it was simply because it was the Baltimore Ravens, a franchise that the Steelers practically owned in the playoffs in the past. Missing Le'Veon Bell would prove more of a problem than anything the Steelers had been forced to endure in the past few seasons, as the second year running back was prolific throughout the 2014 season and earned All-Pro honors, but was lost less than a week before this game due to injury.
Without a viable replacement, the Steelers made an unusual move and reached outside of their own camp for a starter in Ben Tate, but to no avail, as his less than a week with the team was not enough to get him acclimated with Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense in time.
Part of what made this loss not as painful was that they had a new young group of talented stars that were starting to improve and develop into a new core for the team. Pittsburgh became 3-1 against Baltimore in the playoffs and still had to wait for it's first playoff victory since they knocked out both the Jets and the Ravens in 2010.