The Pittsburgh Steelers will face mostly unexplored waters when they face the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC wildcard game on Sunday night. Sunday night will mark only the fourth time the Steelers have been a double-digit underdog in the playoffs and the first time under head coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers opened the week as a 12.5-point underdog against the Chiefs, who recorded a 36-10 win over Pittsburgh in Week 16.
Pittsburgh is 0-3 as a double-digit playoff underdog. Although the Steelers didn’t win, in two of those games they managed to cover the gap and were close to causing an upset. Here’s a look at the Steelers’ three previous playoff games as double-digit underdogs.
1984 AFC Championship Match
A 10-point underdog, the Steelers – a 9-7 regular-season team – were coming off a dramatic win over John Elway’s Broncos in the divisional round. But they couldn’t slow down Dan Marino, the league’s MVP that season, who was looking to make the Steelers pay after his home team let him go in the previous year’s draft. In what is still the most successful AFC championship game, Marino threw for 421 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Dolphins to their second Super Bowl appearance in three years. John Stallworth had 111 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the last playoff game of his Hall of Fame career.
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1989 AFC Divisional Round
- Broncos 24, Steelers 23
Perhaps the Steelers’ most unlikely team in the playoffs so far, the Steelers of 89 reached the playoffs at 9-7 despite losing their first two games by a combined score of 92- 10. The Steelers stunned division rival Houston in overtime in the wildcard round to win a ticket to Denver. A 10-point underdog, Pittsburgh took an early 17-7 lead on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Louis Lipps of Bubby Brister. Denver tied the game in the third quarter after capitalizing on the game’s first turnaround, a fumble by running back Tim Worley. Lagging 24-23 with 2:20 remaining, Pittsburgh’s offer to return was thwarted by an abandoned pass and fumble on their last offensive possession.
The Steelers lost despite a career performance by running back Merril Hoge, who ran for 120 yards and a touchdown in addition to catching eight passes for 60 yards. It was the last game of the playoffs for Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll.
Super Bowl XXX
A 13.5-point underdog, the Steelers were down 13-0 early on before reducing their deficit to six points before halftime on Neil O’Donnell’s touchdown pass to Yancey Thigpen. Down 20-10 with 11 minutes to go, Bill Cowher called for what at the time was the first attempted side kick in Super Bowl history. Deon Figures recovered the kick from Norm Johnson and the Steelers made it a 20-17 game after the Bam Morris touchdown.
Pittsburgh was on the verge of a historic upheaval before O’Donnell threw his second half-time interception on Larry Brown, eventual MVP of the game, after the Steelers defense forced a punt after the Morris touch. The interception set the decisive score for the Cowboys while preserving Dallas’ third Super Bowl victory in four years. The Steelers lost despite beating the Cowboys 310-254 and keeping Emmitt Smith just 49 yards on 18 carries.
Turnovers were a common theme in Pittsburgh’s previous three playoff losses as a double-digit underdog, and that will likely play a part in who wins on Sunday night. After returning the ball three times to Kansas City in Week 16, the Steelers have committed just two turnovers in their last two games while forcing five turnovers in defense. Not only will Pittsburgh have to deal with the ball on offense, but they’ll likely need to make a turnover or two against a Chiefs offense that has committed just three turnovers in the last six games.