As it turns out, it’s actually not enough to just win your last game of the season. The Pittsburgh Steelers did that, beating the Cincinnati Bengals 16-13 on a late field goal, and yet it wasn’t enough to qualify them for participation in postseason play.
Which was a change of pace for the organization, as they had been in the playoffs every year from 2014 to 2017. They were one of only four teams during the past five-year span, including in 2018, to reach the playoffs at least four times, the New England Patriots, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Kansas City Chiefs being the others. The Patriots were the only one to make it every year.
Even after a two-year slump in 2012 and 2013 in which they posted 8-8 record and missed the playoffs both seasons, it had felt as though the playoffs had become not just a given but a right for the Steelers. They won some division titles in that time and even had a bye week, but they were always participating in some way.
All of those postseason trips, or at least their position therein, were built on late-season surges, including in 2014, prompting them to their first division title since 2010. They hosted the Baltimore Ravens but lost.
The following year, they had to make it as a Wildcard, but they beat the Bengals as their hosts before losing the following week to the Denver Broncos—without Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and with a banged up Ben Roethlisberger.
The next season, they were able to win the division again, and they were able to get past the Miami Dolphins and the Chiefs in the first two rounds with a mostly healthy roster, particularly on offense, before being eliminated by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, a game in which they lost Bell early on.
Posting a 13-3 record in 2017, the Steelers had one of their best regular season campaigns in franchise history and it was enough to earn them a bye week, their first since 2010. They could have had homefield advantage had the current catch rule been in place then.
Had that been the case, they wouldn’t have played the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Divisional Round, who would eliminate them in a one-and-done affair. And now, of course, they haven’t made the postseason at all in 2018.
Are the Steelers trending in a negative direction or is this a minor blemish in the middle of a string of relative success? Frankly, that is what this offseason is going to determine.