Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron (left) greets Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after their game in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sunday. (USA TODAY Sports)
By Steve DeShazo/The Free Lance-Star (TNS)
No professional sports league rewards regular-season performance more than the NFL.
Not only do teams with the best records earn home games in the single-elimination playoffs, but the top two teams get first-round byes. (And in the history of sports, no one’s ever lost to a bye.)
Still, that doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride to the Super Bowl. In the past 18 years, five wild-card teams have won Super Bowl titles: Denver (1997), Baltimore (2000), Pittsburgh (2005), the New York Giants (2007) and Green Bay (2010).
That requires winning three times on the road just to get to the championship game. Any wild-card team that hoists the Lombardi Trophy has earned it.
And even though Carolina is a surprising 13-0 and New England is its usual dominating self, it could happen again. If a baseball season is a marathon, an NFL campaign is a demolition derby through a minefield, where one false step can ruin the whole year.
Getting hot in December can be more important than sustained excellence, and two veteran teams seem poised to prove that again.
If the playoffs started this weekend, Pittsburgh would not even be in the playoff field. But no one wants to face the Steelers in January — or Seattle, either.
The Seahawks are one questionable play-call away from a quest for a three-peat. And the dreaded Super Bowl loser jinx seemed to grab them by the gullet. They started 0-2 and 2-4 as their best defensive player, Kam Chancellor, held out.
But they’ve won six of their last seven, with Cleveland (3-10) and St. Louis (5-8) up next at home. Seattle (8-5) won’t catch NFC West leader Arizona (11-2) and earn a home playoff game, but the Seahawks are likely to get the next best thing: a first-round game at the winner of the pathetic NFC East. That’s almost as good as a bye.
In recent years, Seattle’s success has been built on defense and running the ball. The defense is still strong; only two teams have allowed fewer points than the Seahawks, who didn’t allow Minnesota or Baltimore’s offense into the end zone in the past two weeks.
The ground game has been slowed by injuries to Marshawn Lynch and his backup, Thomas Rawls. But Russell Wilson has more than taken up the slack, with 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the past four weeks. He’s posted four straight passer ratings of 138.5 or higher, something no one has done since 1960.
Pittsburgh also got off to a shaky start, going4-4 in large part due to injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell.
But Roethlisberger is now healthy and productive, and the Steelers (8-5) have won four of their last five — with the only loss, fittingly, to Seattle.
The Chiefs have won seven straight and the Jets three in a row, but Pittsburgh seems like the biggest playoff threat. The Steelers have won nine straight December games and are 24-12 in the calendar’s final month under coach Mike Tomlin.
And by knocking Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton out of Sunday’s 33-20 victory with a broken right thumb, the Steelers may have altered both teams’ postseason trajectories.
Like Seattle, Pittsburgh probably won’t catch Cincinnati (10-3) for the division title. But if the Steelers get the No. 1 wild card, they’ll visit the winner of the feeble AFC South. They know how to win on the road, and Roethlisberger has taken the wild-card path to a title.
After hosting AFC West leader Denver (which stumbled last week) this Sunday, Pittsburgh finishes up at Baltimore and Cleveland (who are a combined 7-19). Like the Seahawks, if the Steelers can squeeze their way into the playoffs, they may be a tough out.
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