The Steelers have played 57 playoff games in franchise history, second only to the Dallas Cowboys, winning a league-best 34, tied with Dallas. It’s incredible to think that Pittsburgh, with six world championships in eight Super Bowl appearances, have actually played in more Conference Championship games (15) than Wild Card games (10).
The NFL has had the Wild Card structure since 1970, expanding it in 1978 and again in 1990. In the long, storied history of Steelers playoff football, Pittsburgh is preparing for just its 11th Wild Card game, winning five and losing five of the previous 10.
What’s more, Pittsburgh has hosted only five Wild Card-round games ever. For a team that has made the playoffs 29 times since the Wild Card era began, that’s oddly impressive. With that, here is every Steelers Wild Card game, ranked from worst to best. (Skip the first five if you don’t want to re-live the misery of playoff losses.)
10. Steelers at Denver Broncos, Jan. 8, 2012
Broncos 29, Steelers 23
Two words: Tebow Time.
Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on an 80-yard pass on the first play of overtime, the lowest playoff moment in Steelers history and the worst defensive call in Dick LeBeau’s storied NFL career. In the history of bad playoff beats, losing that way to that guy was the worst, ever.
9. Baltimore Ravens at Steelers, Jan. 3, 2015
Ravens 30, Steelers 17
Which is worse, losing a close playoff game or getting blown out? On this list, losing big at home to your most hated division rival is as bad as it gets (well, not Tebow bad), which puts the 30-17 loss to Baltimore in the 2014 season’s Wild Card round next on the list.
Ben Roethlisberger threw two picks in the fourth quarter and was sacked five times, including one that knocked him out of the game for three plays (before he came back to throw his second pick), and the Steelers just got punched in the face the entire second half by their division foes. Pittsburgh had six drives in the second half, ending Punt, Punt, Touchdown, Interception, Interception, Fumble.
8. San Diego Chargers at Steelers, Jan. 9, 1983
Chargers 31, Steelers 28
Terry Bradshaw, reviving what some critics contend is an aging arm, tried to upstage Dan Fouts and his aerial circus today, but in the end an interception opened the way for the San Diego Chargers to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-28.
After Jeff Allen’s key interception, Fouts threw two touchdown passes to Kellen Winslow, the tight end, in the final quarter.
“We give them a run look,” explained Fouts. “They were coming full blitz, and they bit on the sweep fake.” To start the play, Fouts rolled to his right and faked a handoff to Brooks. Winslow, who five minutes earlier caught an 8-yard pass in the end zone despite a diving effort by Jack Ham to knock down the ball, had lined up tight on the right side.
“I faked a block and let everybody go that way,” the 6-foot-6-inch Winslow said. “I pretend I miss the block, which is something I do very well. Then I just sneak out the back side.”
Yes, the Steelers lost a playoff game on, by the sound of it at the time, the most creative play action pass in NFL playoff history.
7. Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs, Jan. 8, 1994
Chiefs 27, Steelers 24
The Chiefs appeared to be headed home early again when the Steelers took a 24-17 lead with 4:11 to play on quarterback Neil O’Donnell’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Eric Green. O’Donnell completed 23 of 42 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns, but the Steelers managed only 129 yards after halftime.
[Joe] Montana and [Nick] Lowery might not have pulled off the comeback if it had not been for Keith Cash, the Chiefs’ backup tight end. When Pittsburgh lined up to punt with 2:29 to play, the Steelers all but ignored Cash and set up their protection to stop cornerback Albert Lewis, the team’s top punt blocker.
Cash made them pay, brushing off a partial block to bat down Mark Royals’ punt at the Steelers’ 40-yard line. Fred Jones scooped the ball up and took off down the right sideline to the Steeler nine, giving Montana a chance to tie the score.
Montana completed a fourth-down pass into the end zone to tie the game with 1:43 to play to tie the game, then the Chiefs had a chance to win in regulation, but missed a field goal before winning in overtime anyway.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars at Steelers, Jan. 5, 2008
Jaguars 31, Steelers 29
The last time the Jacksonville Jaguars were any good, they had to travel to Heinz Field for the Wild Card round despite a better record than the division-winning Steelers, pulling off a 31-29 victory that was almost one of the great comebacks in Steelers’ history.
Down 21-7 at halftime and 28-10 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter — one on a 4th-and-12 on the first play of the final stanza — to actually take a 29-28 lead with just more than six minutes to play.
After trading punts on the next two drives, David Garrard led the Jags down to the Steelers two-yard line before Josh Scobee kicked the eventual game-winning field goal. Pittsburgh had one last-ditch chance with 29 seconds to get back into field goal range, but Ben Roethlisberger was strip sacked to end the game.
5. Indianapolis Colts at Steelers, Dec. 29, 1996
Steelers 42, Colts 14
A year after beating the Colts in the AFC title game, the Steelers trounced quarterback Jim Harbaugh and his Indianapolis teammates to the tune of 42-14, outscoring the Colts 29-0 in the second half. Mike Tomczak was the Steelers quarterback that game with Kordell Stewart running an early version of the Wildcat. Pittsburgh was able to win on the back of Jerome Bettis — 102 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries — and the defense, which held Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk to just 25 yards on the ground.
4. Cleveland Browns at Steelers, Jan. 5, 2003
Steelers 36, Browns 33
The last time the Browns made the playoffs they were up 24-7 on the Steelers in the second half, at Heinz Field, then lost in the waning seconds of regulation, as Pittsburgh scored 29 points in the final 19 minutes to finish an epic comeback. Tommy Maddox was 30-for-48 for 367 yards, three touchdowns and two picks in the game, yet was nearly out-dueled by Kelly Holcomb’s 429 yards, three scores and one interception.
Cleveland was up 12 points with 10 minutes to play, but Maddox hit Hines Ward on a score with just over three minutes left to get within striking distance. The Steelers forced a three-and-out on the next drive (with two incomplete passes when the Steelers only had two timeouts left) before led Pittsburgh down to the three yard-line, where Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala rumbled in for the game-winning score.
3. Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, Jan. 8, 2006
Steelers 31, Bengals 17
The Steelers were 7-5 after falling to the Bengals in Week 13 of the 2005 season, then rattled off four-straight wins to qualify for the postseason. The AFC had five teams finish 11-5 or better, so Pittsburgh was the sixth seed despite 11 wins, missing out on the division title by nature of a tiebreaker with Cincinnati.
It didn’t matter much, as the Steelers rolled over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, winning 31-17 after falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter. Ben Roethlisberger threw three touchdowns and the defense, which had allowed the Bengals to score on their first three drives, shut the game down in the second half, intercepting Jon Kitna twice in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
The win set the Steelers on a path to the Super Bowl, beating Indianapolis and Denver on the road before topping Seattle at Ford Field for Bill Cowher’s only Super Bowl victory.
2. Steelers at Houston Oilers, Dec. 31, 1989
Steelers 26, Oilers 23
The Oilers had beaten the Steelers on a snowy December Sunday just four weeks earlier, but Pittsburgh got its revenge in an overtime win at Houston, defeating the Oilers 26-23 in the Wild Card round of the 1989 season.
The game at Pittsburgh actually gave Houston home field in the playoff tilt, as the Oilers won both regular season games against the Steelers, but Pittsburgh gave coach Chuck Noll revenge over Jerry Glanville, and handed Noll his final playoff win that New Year’s Eve.
Merril Hoge plunged in from the two-yard line with less than a minute to play and the game was tied at the end of regulation. In overtime, the Oilers had the ball near midfield, close to victory, when Rod Woodson leveled Houston running back Lorenzo While, separating White from the pigskin. The ever-opportunistic Woodson recovered the fumble and now it was Pittsburgh who was close to victory. After a few safe and effective plays down to the Houston 33, stunningly, Gary Anderson drilled a 50-yard field goal that ended the game, 26-23.
1. Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, Jan. 9, 2016
Steelers 18, Bengals 16
This game may not have been the best game, or the most important, but it had all the drama. Rain. Cold. Multiple quarterbacks. Comebacks. Turnovers. Controversy. A Bengals implosion. Everything.
Andy Dalton didn’t play for the Bengals, and the Steelers got off to a 15-0 lead before letting A.J. McCarron and the Bengals back into the game. Ben Roethlisberger was carted off the field after injuring his shoulder, spelled by Landry Jones for three series in the fourth quarter. Things got worse for the Steelers, as the Bengals took a 16-15 lead with under two minutes to play when McCarron hit A.J. Green for a 25-yard touchdown. The two-point try failed, giving the Steelers the ball back, but Jones threw an interception on first down, ostensibly handing the win to the Bengals.
On the next play, though, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill inexplicably fumbled with 1:36 to go, giving the ball back to Pittsburgh with a chance to pull off the win.
Roethlisberger returned for the final drive, converting on a key fourth down before the wheels completely fell off for Cincinnati. Roethlisberger tried to connect on a downfield pass to Antonio Brown with 22 seconds to play, when Vontaze Burfict was flagged for a 15-yard penalty after hitting Brown in the head.
The ensuing dispute of that call led to Adam Jones getting another 15-yard penalty, putting the Steelers at the Bengals’ 17 yard line, gaining 30 yards without running a play. Chris Boswell hit a chip-shot field goal to win the game, the best Wild Card moment for the Steelers and one of the worst playoff moments for the Bengals, ever.