Pittsburgh Steelers: Ranking the Steelers' Top 6 Unforgivable Playoff Losses
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After the Pittsburgh Steelers' dumbfounding AFC wild-card playoff loss to the Denver Broncos, it's been hard to turn on the TV or radio.
Hearing pundits talk about this weekend's NFL divisional playoff games, which don't include the Steelers, is like hearing a love song after a breakup.
Steelers fans can't celebrate Super Bowl victories every year, but some non-championship finishes are easier to take than others.
In a 2007 AFC Wild Card Game, the Steelers fell behind the Jacksonville Jaguars 28-10, went ahead 29-28 then lost 31-29 on a field goal with 40 seconds left.
In a 2002 AFC divisional game at Tennessee, master thespian Joe Nedney kicked the game-winning overtime field goal in the Titans' 34-31 win.
Those losses were heartbreaking, but forgivable. The 2002 Steelers were flawed defensively and the 2007 Steelers were banged up. It wasn't surprising to see those teams go down.
This season's early exit has been hard to believe, and as the days go by, the Steelers' loss to the Broncos goes from unbelievable to unforgivable.
Is this the most unforgivable playoff loss in Steelers history? Let's take a look.
No. 6: 1997 AFC Championship Game
That's Nolan Harrison, not James Harrison, failing to get to John Elway.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Broncos 24, Steelers 21
Sunday's game wasn't the first time the Broncos tormented the Steelers in the playoffs.
The iconic image of this game is Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, in a what-were-you-thinking gesture, whacking himself on the front of his helmet in front of Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart after one of Stewart's three interceptions.
Two of those interceptions came in the end zone, the first one with the Steelers leading 14-10 in the second quarter. John Elway and the Broncos turned that pick into a touchdown and a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Stewart also fumbled after a sack late in the third quarter, and it didn't help that Norm Johnson missed a field goal early in a game the Steelers lost by—you guessed it—three points.
This was the second of four home losses in AFC championship games for the Steelers between 1994 and 2004, but unlike some of those other games, this really wasn't an upset.
The Steelers did beat the Broncos 35-24 in Pittsburgh during the regular season and finished 11-5. But like the 2011 Steelers, the Broncos were a 12-4 team that finished second in its division and had to navigate the wild-card route. They did a better job of it than the Steelers.
This game makes the unforgivable list because were it not for the miscues, the Steelers could have won this game and played what turned out to be a vulnerable Packers team in the Super Bowl.
No. 5: Super Bowl XXX
Larry Brown returns one of his two interceptions in Super Bowl XXX.
Al Bello/Getty Images
Cowboys 27, Steelers 17
At Tempe, Ariz.
The Steelers certainly could be forgiven for losing to the Cowboys, who were a vastly superior opponent.
But if it weren't for two of the most infamous plays in Steelers history, the Steelers might have pulled off the upset.
Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who during the offseason would go for the big payday and sign with the Jets, threw two interceptions to Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown. In both cases, it looked like the ball was thrown right at Brown.
The Steelers fell behind 13-0 early, but scored a touchdown late in the first half to make it a game at 13-7.
Then came Brown's first pick in the third quarter, which led to a Cowboys touchdown and a 20-7 lead.
The Steelers dominated the second half, pulling to within 20-17 on a field goal, an onside kick and a touchdown with 6:36 left in the game.
After forcing a punt, the Steelers took over with a little more than four minutes left. They could have tied the game or taken the lead.
Instead, O'Donnell threw another ball right to Brown, who returned it 33 yards to the Steelers' 6-yard line. The Cowboys cemented their third championship in four years with a touchdown.
There were rumblings that an injury to Steelers receiver Ernie Mills thrust Corey Holliday into a position he wasn't used to, and he ran the wrong route.
Regardless, O'Donnell threw the pass. In this case, he's the unforgiven one.
No. 4: Super Bowl XLV
Rashard Mendenhall played well in Super Bowl XLV -- until his fumble.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Packers 31, Steelers 25
Isn't it funny how the Steelers' last two Super Bowl goats did things after the season to make them even less forgivable?
First, it was Neil O'Donnell killing the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX, then bolting for the Jets. Then, it was Rashard Mendenhall fumbling to dash the Steelers' comeback hopes in Super Bowl XLV, then being the skunk at the lawn party as we celebrated Osama bin Laden's death.
The Steelers fought from behind all night. Nick Collins' 37-yard interception return gave the Packers a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter.
The lead grew to 21-3 before the Steelers pulled to within 21-17 in the third quarter. They started the fourth quarter at the Packers' 33 and had momentum on their side when Mendenhall fumbled. The Packers turned that into a touchdown and a 28-17 lead.
The Steelers still had a shot with two minutes left. They held the Packers to a field goal and trailed 31-25. Isaac Redman returned the kickoff to the 26, but Keyaron Fox was called for unnecessary roughness, yanking the Steelers back to their 13.
The Steelers were in a similar situation two years earlier in Super Bowl XLIII, and it turned out pretty well.
Not this time, though. On that last desperate drive, it wasn't a good sign when Mike Wallace had his arms outstretched before a play in an apparent signal that he had no idea what he was supposed to do.
But Wallace caught nine passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. He can be forgiven.
That doesn't mean this loss can be forgiven.
The Steelers weren't huge underdogs against the Packers like the 1995 Steelers were against the Cowboys.
They could have won this game with a cleaner performance.
No. 3: 1994 AFC Championship Game
Tim McKyer was beaten on Tony Martin's game-winning touchdown and had to be helped from the field after the game.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Chargers 17, Steelers 13
Now we start getting into the realm of disbelief with these Steelers playoff losses.
This was the first of the Steelers' four AFC Championship Game losses at home between 1994 and 2004.
They went 12-4 for the first time since winning their fourth Super Bowl in 1979, and were heavily favored over the 11-5 Chargers.
The Steelers didn't lose this game because of any glaring mistakes. The Chargers erased a 13-3 third-quarter deficit with 43-yard touchdown passes from Stan Humphries to Alfred Pupunu and Tony Martin, the latter giving them a 17-13 lead with about five minutes left.
What made this loss unforgivable was the Steelers' cockiness the week leading up to the game. They planned a Super Bowl video and talked a lot of trash.
While the 1994 Steelers had a stout defense, they didn't have much of an offense, which is why they couldn't put this game away.
Neil O'Donnell drove the Steelers to the Chargers' 3-yard line in the final minutes, but on fourth down his pass into the end zone was broken up, and the Steelers would have to wait 11 more years before One for the Thumb.
No. 2: 2011 AFC Wild Card Game
The Steelers can't catch Demaryius Thomas.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Broncos 29, Steelers 23, OT
Am I ranking this too high because it's still fresh in my memory?
This playoff loss is unforgivable because the Steelers lost to a .500 team, and the game-winning play was just embarrassing.
You could argue that the Steelers were banged up and wouldn't have had a shot against the Patriots Saturday. Still, this was a 12-4 team losing to an 8-8 team, the first time that's happened in the playoffs (Correction: 8-8 Chargers beat 12-4 Colts in 2008), although the 11-5 Saints lost to the 7-9 Seahawks last year.
So the Steelers had to go on the road to play an inferior opponent. You take that chance when you don't win your division. You want a home playoff game? Don't take Week 1 off and lose 35-7 to the Ravens or let them drive 92 yards in the final two minutes in Week 9.
The Broncos' winning touchdown likely will make the list of most memorable plays in NFL history. But this wasn't exactly The Immaculate Reception or The Catch.
Jack Tatum leveled Frenchy Fuqua before Franco Harris caught the ball. A bunch of Cowboys pass rushers were closing in on Joe Montana before he heaved the ball into the hands of Dwight Clark.
It took no extraordinary effort for Tim Tebow to throw a 20-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas and for Thomas to run the remaining 60 yards for the touchdown.
Three days shy of the 25th anniversary of The Drive, the Steelers defense made it much easier on Tebow than the 1986 Browns defense made it on John Elway, who needed 15 plays and nearly five minutes to go 98 yards.
The 2011 Broncos needed just one play and 11 seconds to go 80 yards, the fastest overtime finish in NFL history.
That kind of thing isn't supposed to happen to the storied Steelers defense.
It's like a boxer going down on the first punch.
No. 1: 2001 AFC Championship Game
Troy Brown (center) returned a punt for a touchdown in the 2001 AFC Championship Game.
Al Bello/Getty Images
Patriots 24, Steelers 17
Even if the Broncos don't score on the first play of overtime Sunday, we still don't know if the Steelers win the game.
In the 2001 AFC Championship Game, however, we do know the Steelers win if not for two special teams gaffes.
The Patriots took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter on Troy Brown's 55-yard punt return. Josh Miller punted the ball out of bounds at the Patriots' 23, but a penalty forced the Steelers to punt again, and Brown went untouched into the end zone.
Then in the third quarter, the Steelers attempted a field goal down 14-3. Kris Brown's kick was blocked and recovered by Brown, who ran 11 yards and lateraled to Antwan Harris, who took it the remaining 49 yards for the score and a 21-3 Patriots lead.
The Steelers pulled to within 21-17 before Adam Vinatieri kicked a field goal to make it 24-17 after three quarters.
Unfortunately, "Kordell Stewart" and "fourth-quarter comeback" aren't usually seen together in the same sentence. Stewart threw two interceptions in the final five minutes of the game, killing any Steelers comeback hopes.
Of the Steelers' four home losses in AFC Championship Games under Bill Cowher, you could argue this was the biggest upset. The Steelers were 13-3. The Patriots were 11-5 and the No. 2 seed, but this was before they became an NFL power.
Special teams had been a problem all season for the Steelers. If only they had done something about it, they'd have won this game and maybe the Patriots never win a Super Bowl.
Just like four years earlier, the Steelers missed an opportunity to play what turned out to be a beatable NFC team in the Super Bowl. The Patriots went on to upset the St. Louis Rams.
When the Patriots returned to Heinz Field for the 2004 AFC Championship Game, they beat the Steelers 41-27. By then the Patriots had won two Super Bowls, and Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie coming off a shaky performance in the divisional round. That playoff loss to the Patriots was forgivable.
This one was not.