When the Pittsburgh Steelers squeaked their way into the playoffs, it felt like a gift. Week 16 was simply a train-wreck for them. They went into Baltimore and fell to their greatest rival. For the past decade, a loss to the Ravens was nothing to be ashamed of. Joe Flacco proved he was an elite quarterback every time he faced the Black and Gold. Veteran receivers Steve Smith Sr. or Anquan Boldin would exploit a weakness in Pittsburgh’s secondary. Perhaps most devastatingly of all, Terrell Suggs would make offensive tackles look like small children. The only problem is, not one of those game-changers played week 16. What the Steelers faced week 16 was a Ravens team led by Ryan Mallett. This is the same Ryan Mallet that lost a starting job to Brian Hoyer, then got cut by the Texans. Mallett looked strong in the pocket against a weak pass rush and pulled the Ravens to a deceivingly close 20-17 victory. That, combined with a Jets win over the 12-2 Patriots, meant the Steelers needed a bit of a miracle to make the playoffs. The Jets were looking like one of the best teams in the AFC and had just taken the second wild card spot with a one game lead over Pittsburgh. With a defense loaded with talent, and the best receiving corps in franchise history, the Jets looked poised to go on a playoff run. They now controlled their own destiny, needing a win over the Bills, or a Steelers loss to the Browns.
Queue, Rex Ryan. Sitting at 7-8 Rex Ryan may have had a disappointing season, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t play spoiler for his old team. Before the game, Rex Ryan called week 17 their Super Bowl. Whether his players really believed that or not, they played hard, and they played for 60 minutes. When Fitzpatrick threw the game ending interception, a cheer swept over the crowd 200 miles away in Cleveland. The Steelers were putting the final touches on an easy win, and they were in the playoffs.
The Steelers couldn’t take this playoff gift and do nothing with it. They had proven that even without Maurkice Pouncey and Le’Veon Bell they had one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, had a surprisingly strong defense, and was built for winter football. This was a team that could win playoff games. In the wild card round round of the playoffs, it became clear that all bets were off. What seemed like a potentially easy win against backup quarterback AJ McCarron turned into one of the most brutal games in the history of the NFL. What the Steelers faced in Cincinnati was a team of loose bulldogs. Before the game even started, referees were separating the teams. The first three quarters of the game were slow, hard hitting, and dominated by the Steelers. The Steelers forced turnovers and held a shutout 15-0 lead. If the first three quarters were slow, the fourth was agonizing. The Bengals finally got ahold of their offense and stormed ahead to take a 16-15 lead. The play was ugly, and Vontaze Burfict proved he was the villain everyone suspected. On an attempt at a comeback drive, Burfict sacked Ben Roethlisberger, driving his knee into Roethlisberger’s shoulder. Ben would leave the game with an injury to that shoulder. With under two minutes to play, Landry Jones immediately throws an interception to Burfict. All is seemingly lost until Sophomore middle linebacker Ryan Shazier rips the ball out of Jermey Hill’s hands, giving them one last shot. Roethlisberger returns from the locker room to start a potential game winning drive. The drive is ugly, Ben is incapable of throwing the ball more than 15 yards, but they are chipping away down field. Approaching mid field, a pass is thrown across the middle to Antonio Brown. The next five minutes is among the craziest sequences in recent sports history. After the ball is clearly over thrown, Burfict drills Brown straight to the helmet. Brown is knocked temporarily unconscious and taken out of the game. Personal foul, 15 yards. Coaches and trainers pour onto the field. As Brown is finally brought to his feet and being helped off, Burfict places his hand on Brown’s shoulder. It’s hard to believe that it was a genuine gesture. Moments later, coach Joey Porter is forced into a mob of Bengals where Burfict and Adam Jones lose their temper. Personal foul, 15 yards. After just one play, the Bengals coughed up 30 yards in penalties, giving Chris Boswell a shot at a 35 yard game wining field goal. Right down the middle. Game over.
One week removed, the Steelers are still hurting. Burfict, who took out Le’Veon Bell for the season early in the year, had added two more trophies to his mantle. Antonio Brown suffered a concussion and will not be able to play in Denver. Ben Roethlisberger has tendon damage in his throwing arm, but is expected to play in a limited capacity. Squaring up against the best defense in the NFL does not look good for them. There is hope for the Steelers, however. Their defense played spectacular football for all but one drive in Cincinnati, and they get Peyton Manning. Manning had easily his worst year, throwing 17 interceptions in his first 9 games before Brock Osweiler took over. for the remainder of the regular season. This is a team that has built themselves for postseason football, and has shown that they can play tougher than any opponent they face.
-First and Goal