Steelers' Super Bowl formula for 2016: Avoid wild-card weekend
January 20, 2016 12:21 AM
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
The Steelers hope to avoid the Wild Card round with a division title next year to escape the hard path through the playoffs.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It didn’t take long for the disappointment over the playoff loss in Denver to turn to optimism. Players and fans alike have a one-track mind when it comes to the 2016 season. For better or worse, it will be Super Bowl or bust.
Snippets came Sunday night out of the raw postgame locker room. More emphatic proclamations have come in the days since.
“I think we’re a pretty good team,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “I think we’re going to be pretty nice in the next few years.”
In their quest to get back to the Super Bowl and win their seventh Lombardi Trophy, the Steelers can help themselves by doing something they haven’t done since their most recent Super Bowl trip — earn one of the top two seeds in the conference and the bye to the divisional round that comes with it.
It’s the easiest path to the Super Bowl, and the Steelers haven’t set foot on it since 2010. The Steelers made the playoffs in 2011, 2014 and this season but had to play on wild-card weekend each time. They lost their first game twice and injuries from the wild-card game against the Cincinnati Bengals this season sabotaged their efforts to make the AFC championship when they fell, 23-16, in Denver without their team MVP, receiver Antonio Brown.
Meanwhile, the teams that didn’t have to deal with the land mines of wild-card weekend are playing this week for the right to go to Super Bowl 50. The top four seeds in the NFL advanced to the AFC and NFC championship Sunday in Denver and Charlotte, N.C.
Perhaps because the Steelers were the first No. 6 seed in league history to win a Super Bowl, the idea that wild-card teams have as good a chance as any other team of winning the Super Bowl can be overstated. The Steelers did it in 2005. The New York Giants did it as a No. 5 seed in 2007 and the Green Bay Packers did it as a No. 6 seed in 2010.
But it hasn’t happened since. The past two Super Bowls have featured the No. 1 seed from each conference, and if Carolina and Denver win Sunday, it will mark three consecutive seasons. But, even if they don’t, the Super Bowl will be played by teams that were not exposed to wild-card weekend.
Since 2011, 16 of the 20 teams playing on conference championship weekend earned byes to the divisional round — only the 2011 Giants, 2012 Baltimore Ravens, 2013 San Francisco 49ers and 2014 Indianapolis Colts bucked the trend. That the Giants and Ravens won Super Bowls should not overshadow the fact that the odds of reaching the game are much better as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Take the New England Patriots, for example. The Patriots will play a road playoff game for only the second time in their past 15 postseason contests when they travel to Denver. In those other 13 home playoff games, the Patriots were 9-3, and they reached the Super Bowl three times.
The teams that give themselves the best chance to compete for the Super Bowl are the ones that are licking their chops on wild-card weekend, not the ones licking their wounds.
The Steelers found that out the hard way this season. They were good enough to get to the Super Bowl this season, maybe even good enough to win another one. Injuries got in their way, though. They might be able to avoid that next season by avoiding the wild card.
“We felt like we had something pretty special,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday on his weekly radio segment on 93.7 The Fan. “Offseasons are tough because we lose guys. We’re hoping to get as many guys back as we can. What everyone is excited about is the talent we have. I just think the talent we have on this team, if we can stay healthy, we can be pretty special.”
NOTES — Roethlisberger also told his radio audience that his injured right (throwing) shoulder would not require surgery. His shoulder was separated and he sustained ligament damage in the Cincinnati game. ... The Steelers signed fullback Roosevelt Nix and offensive lineman Chris Hubbard to one-year contract extensions. They also signed 10 players to futures contracts, including nine who spent time on the practice squad this season. They are defensive backs Jordan Dangerfield and Isaiah Frey, offensive linemen B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler, tight end Xavier Grimble, defensive end Cashaud Lyons, running backs Rajion Neal and Abou Toure and receiver Shakim Phillips. Former Pitt safety Ray Vinopal also signed a futures contract.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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