The 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers had what most franchise would consider a good season. The team went 12-4, had the number 1 defense, had two 1000 yard receivers, and a playoff berth. In Pittsburgh however, a first round playoff loss to the Denver Broncos was crushing. It marked the end of a season where the team, fans and city, hoped it would be ended in Indianapolis with a seventh Super Bowl ring. Few will forget Tim Tebow's 80 yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas on the first play from overtime.
And yet, the biggest play that altered the Steelers' championship dreams may not have come in the AFC Wild Card round, but in Week 9 against the Baltimore Ravens.
With 14 seconds remaining in the game, Joe Flacco connected with Torrey Smith for a 26 yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to win the game and sweep the season series against the Steelers. The Steelers had taken the lead with a 25 yard strike to Mike Wallace and the defense was eventually given the task to stop the Ravens from driving 92 yards for a score. Instead, Smith's go route burned cornerback, William Gay, who was expecting help from his free safety, Ryan Clark.
The Ravens took the season series en route to an AFC North title, first round bye, and a home game in the divisional round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Steelers had to face the Broncos on the road, without Ryan Clark, and without a week off to rest injured stars Ben Roethlisberger, Lamarr Woodley and Maurkice Pouncey.
It was a similar heartbreaking play the Steelers are used to doing against the Ravens. In week 15 of the 2008 season, Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes, who crossed the goal line by a millimeter with the football, to cap off a 92 yard drive. The win clinched the AFC North title and eventually a Super Bowl victory two months later. Last season, with the Ravens up 10-6 late in the game, Troy Polamalu stripped the ball from Flacco which was returned to the Ravens' 9 yard line by Lamarr Woodley. The play set up a game winning touchdown catch and run by Ike Redman. The Steelers were granted the AFC North title and a first round bye, once again.
The last minute touchdown by Flacco was not the only opportunity the Steelers had of snatching the division and home field advantage. After all, Pittsburgh was blown out by Baltimore in week 1 as well as San Francisco in week 15. And yet, week 9 may have been their best opportunity to do what previous championship teams have done: take advantage of the situation at hand. Pittsburgh didn't do that this year and maybe if they had, they would be the ones representing the AFC in the Super Bowl instead of New England. Maybe this will be a lesson learned for seasons to come.