For too long, and too often, the Pittsburgh Steelers have found themselves conquerors of the regular season, but little else. They have won 10 or more games in six of the past eight seasons, winning at least 11 five times, and three times scoring victories in 12 or more contests.
The zenith of this contrast came last season. They posted a 13-3 record during the regular season and earned their first bye week since the 2010 season. But they were also eliminated in the Divisional Round, a one-and-one playoff exit, after having won at least one playoff game in their two prior seasons.
Defensive captain Cameron Heyward summed it up best. “We’re not just doing this to be regular-season champions”, he said, according to an article penned by Mike Prisuta for the team’s website.
For the Steelers more than any other team, who have more Super Bowls, more division titles, and more playoff victories than any other organization during the Super Bowl era, the regular season means very little. It’s merely the stepping stone to the real season.
Or at least that is as it is meant to be. They are one of just two teams who have reached at least the Divisional Round in each of the past three seasons, the other being the New England Patriots. That is, if nothing else, a testament to their recent progress and consistency.
Yet they took a step back last year despite having a better record in the regular season. They advanced no further than they did two years ago, and in fact did even worse because they failed to win a single game. At least in 2016, they won the week before to get to the Divisional Round. And they didn’t lose at home. And the game was close.
The Steelers experienced an understandable lull in 2012 and 2013 while a bit of a transitional period occurred, both the offense and defense shedding some of its aging stars from the most recent championship era. And even during that lull, they still avoided a losing record.
Then they won 11 games and claimed the AFC North title in 2014. They hosted a playoff game in the Wildcard Round, though they lost. With a 10-6 record the following year, they had to enter the postseason as a wildcard team, but they won their first playoff game since 2010.
The next year, they claimed the division again with a 11-5 record, and they strung together two wins in the postseason. They are a game away from getting back to the Super Bowl. They could taste it on their lips. It was supposed to fuel them for the next season.
And then they came up substantially shorter, to the surprise and dismay of many. Sure, they were dealt a lot of blows over the course of the year, but had always managed to find a way to win in the end. There are no excuses offered for their failure. They know it’s time to do better in the second season, now that they have mastered the first.