Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 5 Most Irritating Playoff Opponents

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIJune 26, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers: Top 5 Most Irritating Playoff Opponents

0 of 5

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are a perennial playoff contender, qualifying for the NFL's sudden death dance with an almost annual regularity. 

    Pittsburgh and the NFL playoffs seem synonymous. It's easy to view Pittsburgh based on success.  Since the Super Bowl began as the AFL-NFL Championship Game in 1967, the Men of Steel have played heroically in the winter, grinding through the tournament with a great aplomb. Consider the following:

    Since 1966 (Super Bowl era), the Steelers have participated in 26 out of 46 postseasons. In fact, they didn't even qualify for the playoffs until 1972, so the playoffs have included Pittsburgh for 26 of 40 previous seasons.

    In those 26 appearances, the Steelers have won at least one playoff game 18 times. 

    Those 18 playoff wins have turned into additional wins much of the time, culminating in an unprecedented 15 AFC Championship Games and eight Super Bowls. 

    The Steelers are proud owners of six Lombardi Trophies.

    The first four of those titles came after 40 years of being trapped in the doldrums of defeat.  Then, 26 looooong years after the franchise's dominant dynasty, Steelers fans finally achieved not just "One for the Thumb," but one for both of them. This was after a slew of painful letdowns, close calls, close shaves, near misses...

    Well, whatever synonym you want to use for the playoff losses, anybody who bleeds Black and Gold will tell you that they hurt.

    In a manner of speaking, however, the playoff losses are blessings. After all, that which is bitter by mere contrast makes the sweetest of sweets all the sweeter.

    And, moreover, there is another wisdom that serves as quite applicable for a team named the Steelers:

    "Out of the hottest fire comes the strongest steel."

                                                   -Chinese Proverb

    No fan should ever trade in mediocrity to avoid the risks of playoff football. Nevertheless, failure in the postseason is a lonely feeling. 

    To be sure, the confluence of the Three Rivers has seen great football in the last four decades, but with great heights come inevitable lows. Every Man of Steel has his "Doomsday" defense to contend with, and even great teams occasionally fall from the sky

    Perhaps the biggest testament to the Steelers is that despite being on the wrong end more than a few postseason upsets, they've still won more Super Bowls than any other team.

    Yet, it's the natural response of fans, in the Steel City and anywhere else, to think negatively in the wake of defeat. This list celebrates that aggravation.

    This list ranks the five teams whose essence Steelers fans want to collectively pound into the ground!

No. 5: San Diego Chargers

1 of 5

    All time, the Steelers are 1-2 against the Chargers in the playoffs, first losing to Dan Fouts and Air Coryell in a 1982 affair. In that game, Pittsburgh held an 11-point advantage in the final quarter, but fell apart in the clutch.

    Certainly, the '82 squad had lost the killer instinct of the dynasty from mere years earlier.

    Everybody has heard the phrase, "All that glitters isn't gold." Well, not all that glitters is Black and Gold, either. Sparkling seasons have fallen just short of the ultimate goal. Six trophies serve as a tonic for whatever ailments the franchise has encountered, but there have certainly been a few teams serving as the ultimate bane to Pittsburgh's postseason aspirations.

    Never was that gold seemingly "glittering" more brightly, if not in the entire postseason then at least in a single playoff game, than it was in the 1994-95 AFC Championship Game.

    Pittsburgh led 13-3 late in the third quarter.

    Then, the San Diego Chargers, a huge underdog to the Steelers and featuring a quarterback who had thrown no touchdowns and six interceptions in his first seven quarters of NFL postseason play, yanked the twirling Terrible Towels right from the hands of optimistic fans.

    Many will argue that other teams should have taken this slot.

    The Cowboys and Packers both beat Pittsburgh in competitive Super Bowls. The Steelers played decent games in both contests, but the turnover battle cost them both times. In those games, their NFC opponent was favored and won a memorable game.

    Likewise, the Titans and Jaguars, two former division rivals, have beaten Pittsburgh in heart-breaking fashion, on Joe Nedney's overtime Oscar-worthy heroics and David Garrard's controversial last-minute run into field-goal range.

    Still, let me ask just one question:

    What one game, considering the optimism and outlook prior to the contest and sobering reality afterwards, was the most deflating in team history?

    Many, if not most, in the 'Burgh still think the most devastating playoff loss was in 1995, when they hosted San Diego and were favored by nearly two touchdowns.

    It's this simple: You can't hand the city of Pittsburgh its most heart-breaking NFL home playoff defeat and not be on the list. Bear in mind, if this list were most heartbreaking playoff losses, this would likely be higher, but San Diego beat Pittsburgh this lone time.

    Adding to the "what could have been" element of the defeat, the Steelers manhandled the Chargers in '95, defeating them 31-16 despite the game falling within a stretch of weeks when Pittsburgh struggled mightily.

    I still remember the sickening, empty silence heard at Three Rivers Stadium. The video demonstrates the gut-wrenching reality.

    I won't blame those who don't want to relive the events...

No. 4: Oakland Raiders

2 of 5

    Like a few teams on this list, the terms are mutual. Just like the Black and Gold's list, Oakland would include Pittsburgh on their list of frustrating postseason foes.

    The playoff series between the clubs stands at 3-3.

    Historians often cite the 1976 team as Pittsburgh's greatest ever. The 1976 season ended in Oakland, where the Silver 'n Black won the AFC Championship Game, 24-7.

    Heading into that '76 campaign, Oakland had "Steeler Demons" in its dreams, having lost back-to-back AFC championships to its AFC rival, as well as one of the most haunting games ever: The Immaculate Reception.

    In that time, however, "'da Raiiiii-das" attained a measure of revenge, destroying Pitt in the '73 playoffs, 33-14.

    Pittsburgh, a team that had allowed only 28 points and shutout opponents five times over the final nine games (all wins), saw their seeming invincibility and tsunami momentum halted. The loss of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in a 40-14 win over the Baltimore Colts in the divisional playoffs is cited as the main reason for the failure by many elder fans who saw the team play as a shell of itself.

    While the losses were painful, even the aforementioned AFC Championship wins came at a physical price for the Steelers.

    In '75, Raiders coach John Madden and maverick owner Al Davis felt conspired against. Three Rivers Stadium was a sheet of ice despite "efforts" to maintain a playable field. Pittsburgh went back to the Super Bowl, winning, 16-10. In that game, a forearm to the helmet of WR Lynn Swann by Raiders tough-guy Jack Tatum created doubt about Swann's availability for the Super Bowl. He'd be Super Bowl MVP.

    In the early '80s, the Raiders and Al Davis moved to Los Angeles despite the NFL's effort to prevent the relocation. The Steelers would also get blown out, 38-9, in the 1983 playoffs in a game that was famous for Lyle Alzado's domination of Steelers offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin. Ilkin has described it as the worst day of his football career. 

    While both teams got in their hits, it can't be debated that the Raiders were a hurdle for the Steelers dynasty that it didn't always leap over!

No. 3: Miami Dolphins

3 of 5

    The Raiders are the more timeless of Pittsburgh's rivals, but the 'Phins are the more irritating playoff opponent. Why?

    The reason that Miami takes the third spot on the countdown is simple: dynasty cropping!

    In my opinion, had the Steelers beaten the Dolphins in that AFC Championship Game, the Black and Gold would have beaten the Redskins in Super Bowl VII. 

    Instead, the great dynastic Steelers would be put on hold for two more seasons.

    The Steelers' most heartbreaking loss to Miami (and, according to other countdowns, the most heartbreaking loss in team history) came in the 1972 AFC Championship. The Dolphins had gone undefeated, and, due to rotational playoff scheduling, they had to travel to Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium for the game.  

    The Steelers dominated the first half, and it appeared they would go to halftime with a seven-point lead... at worst! 

    Then, things unraveled for Pittsburgh, the team that didn't yet have the playoff experience that coincides with sealing the deal.

    A fake punt gained 30 yards for the Dolphins, and Miami tied the score before the half. On the play, the crowd screamed as the unaware Steelers didn't respond to the sneaky special teams gamble before far too late.

    Both teams went back and forth in the second half, but two interceptions thrown by Terry Bradshaw in the fourth quarter sealed Pittsburgh's fate.

    The curved diamond shapes on the Steelers logo are known as hypocycloids. In 1985, Pittsburgh brought their hypocycloids into Miami, Florida. Unfortunately, Dan Marino brought a straight-forward hyper cyclone! The AFC Championship game between the teams followed Marino's record-setting 1984 campaign, in which the all-time great passer finished with 48 touchdowns and over 5,000 passing yards. 

    In the AFC title tilt, Dan the Man didn't slow down!

    Marino threw for 421 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-28 Dolphins win.  Three of his touchdowns were to the dynamic duo of Mark Clayton (40-yard TD in the first quarter) and Mark Duper.  Mark Malone was at quarterback for the Steelers, and his three touchdowns were valiant, but he simply could not keep pace with Dan.

No. 2: New England Patriots

4 of 5

    Two great Steelers teams have fallen at the hands of the New England Patriots.

    The 2001 and 2004 postseasons were especially painful for Steelers fans.

    The team lost 28-3 to the Pats in 1996, but it avenged the loss with a 7-6 victory in 1997.

    By 2001, the Steelers were so close to a fifth Super Bowl ("one for the thumb"), and they'd come painstakingly close a number of times. The 1999 season marked the 20th anniversary of their last title, and the city was hungry to return to glory.

    The 2001 team went 13-3 and looked dominant. Boston and its soon-to-be killer B's (Brady and Belichick) came to town, fresh off of a miraculous win in snow-covered Foxboro Stadium, a game remembered for the infamous "Tuck Rule" call. 

    Brady is 6-2 lifetime against Pittsburgh, dominating the Black and Gold defense more often than not. This game marked a rare showdown in which Brady wasn't effective. He left the first half injured, and Drew Bledsoe entered the game. Bledsoe played good enough to win, but his effort alone would not have been enough to overcome Pittsburgh. 

    Pittsburgh's special teams allowed a blocked field goal return to go for a touchdown. A great punt by Josh Miller had already been called back earlier in the game, resulting in a subsequent return for a touchdown by Troy Brown. The Steelers attempted to rally, but ultimately lost, 24-17.

    In 2004, the Steelers went 15-1, and Ben Roethlisberger seemed the perfect answer to quarterbacking woes that kept the team below its potential. Tom Brady was on an IV drip the night before the game, but answered with a fantastic showing in a 41-27 Patriots win. 

    The Steelers had dominated New England to end their 21-game winning streak earlier that same season, yet when the stage was at its biggest, the Patriots simply dominated them.

    Those two seasons were a dark corner Pittsburgh had to cross to eventually become a champion again. However, predicting the future is not a luxury that fans have to fall back on in the present day.

    At the time, the losses seemed grim, like lost opportunities toward a hopeless cause. Bill Cowher was "never going to win the big game." The Steelers "lost again at home to New England." The Bus was going to retire "without a ring."

    And, Tom Brady still dominates Pittsburgh to this day.

    No team, or MAN, has been a bigger current hurdle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. For the last few seasons, most fans would have placed the Patriots atop this list.

    However, last season, a far too familiar postseason opponent eclipsed Boston's spot in the ranking.

No. 1: Denver Broncos

5 of 5

    He may not have haunted the Steelers as much as the Browns, but John Elways—both in cleats and in the press box—has served as quite the nuisance to Pittsburgh's playoff aspirations!

    Pittsburgh's dominant 34-17 Mile High win over the Broncos in the 2005-06 AFC Championship Game was vengeance for Steelers fans. Just less than a decade earlier, John Elway engineered 14 points in the final two minutes of the first half, and Denver rode the scores (and Terrell Davis) to a 24-21 victory in the 1997-98 AFC title tilt. 

    It was Cowher's second home loss in an AFC Championship Game. Kordell Stewart was just beginning to master the fine art of throwing into triple-coverage at the worst possible time.

    Denver has mastered the fine art of ending Pittsburgh's playoff hopes almost once per decade.

    It was just less than a decade earlier, in 1989, when the Steelers were fresh off a monumental upset over the favored Houston Oilers. The win earned them a trip to Denver to play the top-seeded Broncos. They had reason to be confident.

    Years earlier, the 1984 Broncos and upstart quarterback John Elway were upset by Pittsburgh, 24-17, in Denver. The loss prevented a famous John Elway-Dan Marino showdown the following week, and the Steelers did little to justify their spot in the game, losing in a blowout (see last slide). 

    The 1989 game looked to be ending the same way, with the Steelers ahead 23-17. An Elway drive late in the fourth quarter gave the Broncos a 24-23 edge. The Steelers had a chance to drive late, but dropped passes doomed a rally, and the Broncos won the game over the surprising 1989 Steelers. The same Steelers team started that campaign with losses of 51-0 and 41-10 against the Browns and Bengals.

    It wasn't just Elway who upset the Steelers, those two losses coming in the '80s and '90s. 

    The dynasty Steelers of the 1970s traveled to Denver for the '78 playoffs and they left losers, 34-21.   The loss prevented a fourth consecutive Raiders-Steelers AFC Championship Game.

    So, Denver nipped Pittsburgh in the...

    ...'70s

    ...'80s

    ...'90s

    ...and, mercifully, the Broncos took a timeout in the '00s, allowing the Steelers to even the all-time postseason series with a masterful performance by Big Ben over Jake Plummer.

    However, just last season, Denver took a 4-3 playoff edge whenever Tim Tebow averaged 30 yards per completion in a stunning 29-23 overtime victory.

    If you time it just right, perhaps you will be able to predict the following two games:

    1) Pittsburgh's win to even the postseason series, and...

    2) Denver's next playoff victory (next decade) to reclaim the playoff edge.