With no other choice, Steelers praying for the playoffs
January 3, 2016 12:00 AM
The Steelers, in team history, have both beaten the odds and been beaten by them — what will today bring?
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hovering between the playoffs and the offseason on the final weekend of the regular season can be an anxious time. Players wonder what they did to get here, how their fate might have been different and how the future still might be filled with heavenly bliss.
The Steelers find themselves in an all-too familiar spot today. For the third time in seven years, they’re in playoff purgatory.
Needing a victory and help from other teams on the NFL’s final regular-season weekend, the Steelers were denied entrance to the postseason in 2009 and 2013. Now they’re hoping the football gods smile upon them much in the same way they did in 1989 when they overcame the longest odds in the league’s modern era to make the playoffs.
The Steelers need help to make the playoffs today, but that hasn't stopped some other teams that needed help on the NFL's final weekend from doing damage in the playoffs. Below are some of the more interesting final-week scenarios that have shaped NFL playoff history over the years:
They had a one-game lead over Dallas heading into their final game vs. the Cowboys. Dallas needed to beat Philadelphia by 25 or more points to win the NFC East. After Dallas stormed out to a 35-10 lead early in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia scored the final 17 points to swing the division net points tiebreaker back in its favor. Philadelphia lost the game, 35-27, but won the NFC East title (by better division net points, +84 to +50). That meant that when both teams faced each other again for the NFC championship, it was played in Philadelphia. (Had Dallas won by exactly 25 points, both Dallas and Philadelphia would have gone to the sixth tiebreaker, best net points in all games, which Dallas would have won).
Jacksonville needed a win against Atlanta and either an Indianapolis loss or if the Buffalo-Kansas City game did not end in a tie. Falcons kicker Morten Andersen missed a 30-yard field goal with four seconds left in the game which would have eliminated the Jaguars. (Andersen had made 59 consecutive kicks from 30 yards or closer dating to 1989). Instead, Jacksonville won, 19-17, to clinch a wild-card spot. In the postseason, the Jaguars upset the Bills and Broncos on the road before losing to New England in the AFC championship.
New England clinched the AFC East in the final weekend with a win against Carolina and clinched a first-round bye when the Jets defeated Oakland, 24-22, on a 53-yard field goal in the final minute. With the loss, Oakland was the No. 3 seed and had to play the Jets again on wild-card weekend, then go on the road to face the No. 2 seed Patriots in the divisional round. In other words, by earning the bye, the Patriots faced the Raiders at home instead of in Oakland.
They needed three outcomes to go their way. With Tampa and Chicago both losing afternoon games, the Eagles were still alive and that meant the Dallas-Philadelphia game would decide the final wild-card spot. Philadelphia won, 44-6, to make the playoffs and advanced all the way to the NFC championship before losing to Arizona.
-- Ivan Urena, pro football historian
The scenario the Steelers face today is easy compared to those other years. If the Steelers win at Cleveland and the New York Jets lose at Buffalo, the Steelers are in the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the AFC.
But the Steelers also know from past experience that counting on other teams can lead to heartbreak even when they take care of their business.
“Asking for help in this profession and getting it, it’s one of those things that rarely ever happens,” said offensive lineman Ramon Foster, who was around to experience the near misses in 2009 and 2013.
Foster is right. Teams needing help often don’t make it to the playoffs. And it’s not just the Steelers’ bad experiences that have set the stage for this long-shot Sunday along the shores of Lake Erie. It’s the experiences of all others in the same position since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
Since 1970, about 77 percent of the teams that have controlled their own playoff fate entering the final weekend of the season made the playoffs, according to footballgeography.com. Conversely, about only 33 percent of teams that needed a win and one other outcome to go in their favor made the playoffs.
Teams that needed two other outcomes in addition to theirs made the playoffs about 7 percent of the time and teams that needed three or more outcomes in addition to theirs also only made it about 7 percent of the time.
The Steelers are represented in that 7 percent. They are one of two teams in NFL history to secure a playoff berth on the final weekend of the regular season when four games had to go in their favor.
The Steelers watched a Christmas miracle unfold before their eyes in 1989. And once they were in the playoffs, they took advantage of their good fortune by winning a wild-card game in Houston. One week later, they came within a dropped pass late in the fourth quarter of going to the AFC championship.
Steelers beat the odds
In 1989, the Steelers had to win at Tampa Bay against the 5-10 Buccaneers on Christmas Eve, and the Colts, Raiders and Bengals all had to lose on the final weekend as well. The Steelers beat the Buccaneers, 31-22, and the good news kept rolling in that Sunday afternoon. The Saints beat the Colts and the Giants beat the Raiders.
All that was left for the Steelers to secure a playoff berth was for the 9-6 Vikings to beat the 8-7 Bengals in Minneapolis. But they had to wait until Monday Night Football on Christmas to find out their fate.
Former Steelers offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin, who is now the color commentator on Steelers radio broadcasts, flew back to Pittsburgh with the team following their victory in Tampa even though his family remained in Tampa at his in-laws.
If the Bengals won Christmas night, Ilkin was going to hop on a plane and rejoin his family for the holiday. He spent that night on the phone with friend and teammate Craig Wolfley as they lived and died with every snap between the Bengals and Vikings.
“It was back and forth,” Ilkin recalled. “I’d call him and say, ‘All right, we’re in.’ When it looked like the Bengals would win, I’d call him and say, ‘All right, I’m flying out tomorrow; I’ll see you when I get back.’ ”
The Vikings jumped out to a 22-7 halftime lead. The Bengals got within a point at 22-21 in the fourth quarter before the Vikings added an insurance touchdown for a 29-21 victory.
Ilkin can remember fans outside his Upper St. Clair home honking their car horns in celebration of the fact the Steelers were in the playoffs for the first time since 1984.
Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake was a rookie in 1989, started 15 games at safety and was named the team’s rookie of the year. He has shared the story of that final weekend with his players in the past.
“You hate to be in this position because you’re counting on someone else,” Lake said. “It’s not a good feeling. You’re always on pins and needles. But we only need one team to win this time.”
If the Steelers make it to the playoffs, anything can happen. The 1989 team is proof of that.
The Steelers won five of their final six that season to finish at 9-7 and had tremendous momentum heading into the playoffs. In the wild-card game in Houston, Merril Hoge scored on a 2-yard run with 46 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime.
Then in overtime, after Rod Woodson forced and recovered a Lorenzo White fumble, Gary Anderson booted a 50-yard field goal for a 26-23 victory that sent the Steelers to Denver for a divisional round game against the Broncos.
At Mile High Stadium, the Steelers held a 10-point lead in the first half and led by six in the fourth quarter before John Elway led one of his signature late drives to give the Broncos a 24-23 lead.
The Steelers had one more chance. They got the ball back at their 20 and were driving with a little more than two minutes remaining when rookie receiver Mark Stock dropped a pass at the Denver 40. Two plays later, quarterback Bubby Brister could not handle a low snap from center Chuck Lanza, and the Broncos earned their way to Cleveland for the AFC championship.
“Anything can happen if you get in the playoffs,” Lake said. “Just like this season, you never know what’s going to happen on any given Sunday.”
Ivan Urena, a pro football historian and author, said no team that has needed help on the final weekend has ever advanced to the Super Bowl, but two teams — the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars and 2008 Philadelphia Eagles — made it to conference championship games.
Odds beat the Steelers
The Steelers weren’t so fortunate in 2009 and 2013. In 2009, they needed to win in Miami and have either the Jets and Texans lose; the Texans and Ravens lose; or the Jets, Ravens and Broncos to lose. The Steelers won in Miami, but none of the other scenarios went in their favor.
It was even more complicated two years ago. Like 1989, the Steelers needed to win and three other teams had to lose. The Steelers took care of their business with a 20-7 home victory against the Browns. They also got the help they needed when Miami and Baltimore lost. The final piece to the puzzle — San Diego losing at home to Kansas City — did not come to fruition because Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop missed a 41-yard field goal near the end of regulation.
“When six inches separated us from the playoffs,” offensive lineman David DeCastro recalled last week.
“I remember being disappointed, but not by the outcome of the Chiefs game as much as what we could have done better during the season,” added lineman Marcus Gilbert. “You never want another man or another team to control your destiny. That’s what happened. I try to tell the young guys every game is valuable. This thing goes by so fast. It seems like we just got to training camp yesterday. When you have another team control your chances, it’s the worst feeling. We have too good of a team to be packing our things up early and heading home. It’s just a terrible feeling.”
What most fans have forgotten by now are two missed calls by officials that helped San Diego win the game. On the missed field goal, the Chargers had seven defenders on one side of the formation. Referee Bill Leavy’s crew should have called a penalty and Succop should have been able to kick again from 36 yards. The NFL admitted the mistake the next day.
Leavy also negated a Kansas City fumble return for a touchdown in overtime when he ruled Eric Weddle’s forward progress was stopped on a fake-punt run that resulted in a first down. The Chargers went on to kick a field goal later in overtime and win.
Players and coaches made it home to watch that game on television. They won’t have to wait this time. They’ll hear the result of the Bills-Jets game on the field or when they get to the locker room. They’ll either be pulling off their pads for the final time this season or thanking the Bills for a reprieve and getting ready for a Super Bowl run.
“All we can do is get on our knees and pray,” Gilbert said. “We’ll be praying like crazy for the right things to happen.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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