This coming Sunday at 1pm, I'll sit down to watch the Steelers play the kind of game they've only participated in once since December 31st, 2003: A regular season game without any playoff implications or strategy designed to keep the players healthy for a postseason game.
Pittsburgh was eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday after a 13-10 loss at Heinz Field to the Bengals--the team's third straight home loss--and the only thing at stake against the Browns this week is pride and to try and avoid the first losing season since that previously mentioned '03 campaign.
As a Steelers fan, it's sort of an empty feeling to not have the postseason to look forward to. In Pittsburgh, the playoffs have almost become synonymous with the holiday season.
Maybe this is a bit out-of-touch, but when the reality set in on Sunday that the Steelers wouldn't be making the playoffs, it actually made Christmas feel a lot less magical to me. That's weird, isn't it? After all, Christmas and New Year's are about spending time with friends and family, but that's the thing. So many magical memories throughout the years have centered around magical playoff moments.
It's almost as if a Steelers playoff game is like that uncle that comes to visit for Christmas each season. When he decides to stay home for the holidays, it's just not the same.
When the Steelers are in the playoffs, you can extend your holiday season at least another week or two. And if they make it all the way to the Super Bowl like they did two seasons ago, you're 'tissing the season until February.
Oh well, I guess I kind of saw this coming as recently as a year ago. I really didn't think Pittsburgh's 12-4 record reflected its actual play on the field in 2011, and I thought the team's performance was more reflective of a .500 football team that had the fortune of going up against quarterbacks named Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, Tarvaris Jackson, Colt McCoy and Kellen Clemons, just to name a few.
I think the age of the team is more relevant than people want to admit, and that's to be expected. When you watch your favorite football team have so much championship success in such a short period of time, it's hard to let that go, and it's hard to face the reality.
I find it fitting that age might be catching up to the Steelers in this second Super Bowl era because that's what happened to the original Super Steelers of the 70s. Once the calender turned to the 80s, time hit those legendary players harder than any Jack Lambert forearm possibly could, and by the middle part of the decade, Pittsburgh was a mediocre football team with a roster full of underwhelming players.
The decade of the 90s brought us Bill Cowher and a resurgence to excellence for the Steelers. And as for the NFL as a whole, it also brought free agency and a salary cap, and instead of age taking its toll on Pittsburgh's Super Bowl chances, the free agency departures of guys like Leon Searcy, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Yancy Thigpen and John Jackson depleted the roster and forced a rebuilding phase that brought about more playoff teams in the early 2000's. And when safety Troy Polamalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came on board in the middle of the decade, the Steelers were primed for their second true championship era.
Naturally, when a team goes on a run like Pittsburgh has with three Super Bowl appearances and two titles since 2005, an ownership group is going to be more inclined to ride that kind of success out and see how far it goes. And instead of allowing a player to leave a year too soon, the front office is going to keep guys like Casey Hampton, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior around maybe a year too long.
How many times this season did network analysts like Phil Simms quote opposing quarterbacks as being amazed at how the Steelers defenders they were preparing for in 2012 were essentially the same ones they were preparing for in '07 and '08?
Teams that play together may win together, but unfortunately, they also grow old together. Joe Greene said he wasn't the same player at 32 that he was at 27; don't kid yourselves into thinking Polamalu is the same athlete today that he was five years ago. It's simply not possible. Nobody's ever defeated time.
I often wonder if we're witnessing in today's Steelers what we witnessed in the early 80s--a decline into mediocrity.
Of course, I wondered the same thing following other non-playoff seasons, such as 2006 and 2009, but the team bounced back each time, with not only more playoff seasons, but Super Bowl success.
I have all the confidence in the world that the Steelers front office will find a way to keep the team relevant. The NFL of today isn't like it was years ago. Parity really is in full force.
You see it every year with teams making the playoffs a year after having a sub-par campaign like the Colts and Redskins, and if they can do it, I'm sure Pittsburgh will find its way back to January football before long.
I believe as fans, we're always paying it forward and then paying it back. In 1989 and 1993, the Steelers needed all the help in the world to get into the playoffs, and they somehow managed to do so. This season, Pittsburgh was in control of its own fate but still couldn't get the job done on the field.
Three seasons ago, when the Steelers missed out on the postseason, it kind of sucked. But the following year when they made it all the way to Super Bowl XLV, I appreciated it even more. And I especially cherished that Super Bowl when Pittsburgh was bounced out of the first round of the playoffs a season ago.
And now, today, I appreciate what it means just to see the Steelers make the playoffs because they now are absent from them.
There is simply nothing like an NFL playoff game. All the intensity and emotion from a best of seven series that sometimes lasts two weeks is condensed down into this white-hot three hour window of tension and emotions, and it's just a beautiful thing. There are no tomorrows in the NFL playoffs, and that's why I love them so much.
And forget about a Super Bowl run, just winning a playoff game provides fans with so much joy and excitement.
Sadly, it's a feeling that Steelers fans won't get to experience for at least another calender year.
That's too bad. It's going to be a lot colder this January without the Steelers in the playoffs.