Why you should care

Because sometimes you get a second chance.

On Feb. 5, 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers gave all NFL playoff teams a reason to dream.

The Steelers weren’t the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl. Nor did they have the worst record of any Super Bowl champion. But when the Steelers won three straight playoff games on the road and followed through by winning the Super Bowl, they officially put the “wild” in the Wild Card era.

The teams aren’t just trying to extend their seasons another week or so. They’re seeking a legitimate chance to win it all.

Now, as several teams battle for the last of the NFL’s 12 playoff spots this weekend, they aren’t just trying to extend their seasons another week or so. They’re seeking a legitimate chance to win it all. And they’ll be able to draw inspiration from the last few years, as wild card teams have become legitimate contenders, not accidental flukes. Here’s how the wild card came to be, how it changed, and how one team came from behind to win it all, giving perpetual hope to underdogs everywhere.

The wild card was born in the 1970 season when the NFL and AFL merged, becoming two conferences with three divisions each. Each conference had four playoff teams – the three division winners and the team with the next-best record, a.k.a. the wild card.

There weren’t a lot of upsets during the first decade. Only the 1975-76 Dallas Cowboys reached the Super Bowl as a wild card, winning two road games before falling to the Steelers in Super Bowl X.

The NFL added more wild cards in 1978 (five per conference) and 1990 (six per conference). The 1980-81 Oakland Raiders broke through as the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl, but no one else did it until John Elway led the 1997-98 Denver Broncos to a win in Super Bowl XXXII. The Baltimore Ravens repeated the feat in 2000-01.

Bleecher view of a play bring run by John Elway

Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway turns to handoff to running back Derek Loville in Super Bowl XXXII, 1998.

Source John Reece/Elway

Then the NFL modified its rules and made things a little harder.

In 2002, the League reconfigured into its current 32-team, eight-division format, and one of the side effects was that it hurt the wild card teams, with home games reserved for division champions. To put it in perspective, when the Raiders, Broncos and Ravens won the Super Bowl via the Wild Card playoffs, they each played a home game in the wild card round. The only team that had won three postseason games on the road was the 1985-86 New England Patriots, who then lost to the “Super Bowl Shuffle” Chicago Bears.

Still, three teams have managed to take advantage of the wild card option to go all the way.

Still, three teams have managed to take advantage of the wild card option to go all the way.

It started with the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, who had underachieved through most of the regular season and broken hearts all year long.

The year before, they had shown such promise. The Steelers were 15-1 in the regular season but lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. That was the Steelers’ fourth AFC Championship loss in five tries under head coach Bill Cowher, who was battling a reputation as someone who couldn’t win the big one.

By December, the Steelers were all but out of it. A streak of three losses, the last at division rival Cincinnati, left them sitting at 7-5.

“I don’t think right now we’re the most confident team,” Steelers center Jeff Hartings said.

“It used to be Pittsburgh’s time,” brash Bengals receiver Chad Johnson (later Chad Ochocinco) said at the time. “Now it’s Cincinnati’s time.”

But then things started to change. The Steelers bounced back to take a comfortable 21-9 win over Chicago, stifled host Minnesota for an 18-3 win, then routed the Browns 41-0 in Cleveland on Christmas Eve. All they needed to get into the playoffs was a homegame win against Detroit, which they pulled off via three touchdowns from stalwart running back Jerome Bettis in his final home game.

Steeler in dark uniform holding a football as he is about to get tackled by Lion in white uniform

Detroit Lions at the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 1, 2006

Source Getty

Now it was wild card time.

The Steelers got their initial revenge against Cincinnati with a controversial hit that knocked Bengals QB Carson Palmer out of the game with a knee injury.

Next, they marched into Indianapolis, scored the first 14 points of the game and held on after QB Ben Roethlisberger made an improbable tackle to stop a touchdown on a fumble return.

By the time the AFC Championship came around, they were on such a roll that they once again jumped to an early lead, and Denver never even threatened them, even though they were playing at home.

By comparison, Super Bowl XL was almost anti-climactic, though the outcome was in doubt until Roethlisberger handed off to Antwaan Randle El, a college QB-turned-pro receiver who threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to game MVP Hines Ward. The Steelers, dead in the water in early December, had seized the opportunities the NFL’s still-new playoff format allowed them.

Since then, the 2007 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers have duplicated the Steelers’ tough four-game road to the Lombardi Trophy. The Giants had a second improbable run in 2011, winning the NFC East with a record of 9-7 and then winning four postseason games, including the Super Bowl.

Next week, after the regular season standings are settled, four wild card teams will hit the road, all with hopes of keeping their Super Bowl dreams alive. You can forgive them and their fans for thinking that they’ve got a shot, since, well, they actually do.

“You just have to see what happens,” Cowher said after the Steelers’ triumph. “You just keep going.”

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