That title of this article is so obviously obvious, isn't it?
Of course the Steelers should aim for a postseason bye next year. Heck, their goal should be an undefeated season, a division title and a number one seed. But I just thought I'd re-emphasize the importance of earning at least a bye into the second round of the playoffs, considering how the idea of a 2005-like magical run to the Super Bowl as a sixth seed has been romanticized and deemed a darn good idea since, you know, Pittsburgh did that in 2005.
It is true that Yours truly spent a great deal of time during the end of the 2015 regular season pontificating on the notion that just getting into the playoffs is a great thing, and I stand by that, because it is a great thing (this was one of my favorite Steelers seasons in quite some time, simply because they won a playoff game). However, if we're talking about business, if we're talking about what all Steelers fans seem to crave each and every season as if they're waiting on their annual tax return to arrive in their bank account--a seventh Super Bowl championship--Pittsburgh simply must find a way to earn a bye next year.
Since that glorious run to the Super Bowl a decade ago under former head coach Bill Cowher, the Steelers have started their playoff journey on Wild Card Weekend four times under current head coach Mike Tomlin--twice as a straight-up wild card and twice as a division winner.
They say that, regardless of their playoff positioning, the hottest and healthiest teams are often the ones that make Super Bowl runs. Maybe, but did you know that Tomlin's teams have played 300 minutes and 11 seconds of postseason action after starting their journey in the wild card round, and they haven't played one single second with their first string running back?
That's right, whether it was Willie Parker breaking his leg in 2007, Rashard Mendenhall tearing his ACL in 2011, Le'Veon Bell hyper-extending his knee in 2014 or Bell tearing his MCL in 2015, Pittsburgh has been without the services of its top running back the last four times it has had to win three playoff games just to reach the Super Bowl. And if you want to throw in Bell's backup, DeAngelo Williams, who was first string-like in 2015, as he rushed for 907 yards before suffering a foot injury in Week 17 and missed both the wild card and divisional games, you can do so.
Maurkice Pouncey has had his injury problems. It's true that the Pro Bowl center suffered what proved to be a season-ending injury in 2015 when he broke his ankle in the third preseason game. However, in late 2011, Pouncey sustained a high-ankle sprain against the Browns in early December, an injury that would ultimately force him to miss the wild card game against the Broncos a month later.
Speaking of that game in Denver. In addition to the absences of Pouncey, Mendenhall and a few other notables, the Steelers (12-4) were forced to play without the services of Ryan Clark, their starting free safety. Was Clark injured? Negative. He was held-out as a precaution, after the city's rarefied air combined with his sickle cell trait caused an attack during a game four years earlier which resulted in him losing his spleen and gallbladder.
Obviously, Tomlin made the right decision by not allowing Clark to play (there are more important things than football). But if you recall that game, it was the one where Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow actually looked like he could throw a football, as he put 316 yards on Ryan Mundy and the rest of Pittsburgh's defense in a 29-23 upset. Yes, the Broncos (8-8) were huge underdogs in that game (7.5 points, according to Pro Football Reference), but they were the home team. Why? Because they won the AFC West, while Pittsburgh lost the AFC North on a tiebreaker after being swept by the Ravens in the regular season and entered the postseason as the fifth seed.
Oh yes, in-case you forgot, Ben Roethlisberger also entered the 2011/2012 playoffs at less than 100 percent after suffering a high-ankle sprain in the same game that Pouncey suffered his.
Basically, the Steelers could have used a bye that season.
Speaking of years in-which a bye would have come in handy, 2015 sure was one of them. Despite the absence of Williams, the Steelers began their wild card game in Cincinnati as a relatively healthy and favored sixth seed. However, over the course of the next three hours, they would see Roethlisberger carted into the locker room with a shoulder injury and Antonio Brown assisted to the sidelines after a vicious hit to the head.
Both injuries came courtesy of Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who seemed to have a knack for injuring Pittsburgh's top offensive players in 2015 (Bell's torn MCL in Week 8 was the result of a Burfict tackle).
While he played and was effective against the Broncos in the divisional round, Roethlisberger surely wasn't 100 percent. As for Brown, the team's MVP and maybe the best football player on the planet in 2015, he was forced to miss the game in Denver after not passing the NFL's concussion protocol.
Speaking of team MVP's. Since Bell (the 2014 team MVP) missed the wild card game against Baltimore after suffering a hyper-extended knee against the Bengals one week earlier, that means that Pittsburgh has participated in 180 minutes of playoff action over the past two seasons, and its team MVP has missed 120 of them.
Had the Steelers been able to avoid things like, well, losing twice to a 5-11 Baltimore team in 2015, they may have actually won the division, earned a bye into the second round, and who knows? Maybe they would have been able to avoid Burfict entirely and maybe even reach the Super Bowl.
If the past three seasons have taught us anything, it's that the eight year run of teams making it to the Super Bowl by winning three playoff games (seven teams made the Super Bowl out of the wild card round between 2005-2012, and six of them won the game) may actually be over. The last three Super Bowls were occupied by number one seeds, which, for many years before Pittsburgh's magical '05 run kicked-off the wild card trend, was the rule and not the exception.
Obviously, I'm stating the obvious, but the Steelers, who are one of the favorites to win it all next year, will be wise to avoid Wild Card Weekend.