10 most agonizing playoff losses in Pittsburgh Steelers history

The most agonizing playoff loss may surprise you, but tune in to see which games make the cut.
Green Bay Packers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Green Bay Packers v Pittsburgh Steelers / George Gojkovich/GettyImages

The Steelers have won six Super Bowls over six decades, but we have not won a Super Bowl since the 2008 season. That is a long drought for a franchise that won four Super Bowls over the course of six years during the decade of the 1970s, but I guess the 'silver lining' is that we have won six Super Bowls while some franchises have not either won any or have not even appeared in a Super Bowl contest.

It goes without saying that to even get to the 'big game', you have to win playoff games along the way. Although we have won plenty of playoff games, we have lost our fair share of playoff games as well. Would you be surprised to learn that our playoff record stands at slightly more wins than losses?

I was surprised by that statistic, to say the least. To be fair, some of those losses were probably destined, meaning we were lucky to get to the playoffs in the first place. Other losses were downright agonizing in the sense that we should have won, but we didn't. The old 'woulda, shoulda. coulda' scenario.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the ten most agonizing playoff losses in Steelers history.

10. 2017 Divisional Round-Steelers 42, Jacksonville Jaguars 45

After losing in the AFC Championship game the previous year, the Steelers posted an impressive record of thirteen wins and three losses in the 2017 season. We won eight straight games that year and finished in the top ten in both points scored and points allowed.

On paper, we looked like a team that was built for January football. Alas, it was not meant to be as we ended up being a team that was 'one and done' in the playoffs. We played host to the Jacksonville Jaguars and were quickly down by twenty-one points late in the second quarter.

The difference in the game to me was the turnovers. We turned the ball over twice; the Jags turned the ball over zero times. Although we fought to the end, that game was essentially lost in the first quarter after the Jags put up fourteen points to our zero points. The fallout from that loss was surprising in that Todd Haley, our OC, was let go in the offseason.

9. 2020 Wild Card Round-Steelers 37, Cleveland Browns 48

The 2020 season brought the Steelers another playoff berth after not having made the playoffs since the 2017 season. The offense ranked just outside the top ten in points scored, but the defense ended the season with the third-best ranking in points allowed.

Although we won the AFC North that season, we would face the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round. Similar to 2017, it did not go well, to say the least. The Browns scored twenty-eight points in the first quarter...the first quarter. Think about that.

We never really got close in this game and the Browns ended up winning on our home turf. What a disgrace. What was also disgraceful was the fact that we committed five turnovers to the Browns zero turnovers. Similar to the 2017 playoff loss, there was fallout from this loss.

Maurkice Pouncey announced his retirement after an illustrious eleven-year career. Not only did we lose badly at home to the Browns, but we lost our stalwart center in the process. Talk about agony. Let's take a look at the playoff losses that come in at numbers eight and seven in our discussion.

8. 2001 AFC Championship-Steelers 17, New England Patriots 24

After a lackluster season in 2000, the Steelers were back with a vengeance in 2001, having finished the regular season with a thirteen-and-three record. After the 2000 season, we changed offensive coordinators and that seemed to do the trick, so to speak.

Alas, it would be another season that was full of expectations that fell short in the playoffs. After a rather convincing win in the Divisional round, we hosted the New England Patriots at home in the AFC Championship game.

We were losing by eighteen points in the third quarter, Kordell Stewart, who enjoyed a fantastic regular season, threw three INTs and was not particularly efficient in the passing game. Although we got it to a four-point game, we would ultimately fail in the end.

Stewart would last only one more season with the Steelers. That;'s what I remember most about that game. I somehow knew that Stewart's time was coming to an end. That's what also made the loss agonizing. Who knew how long it would be before we got back to the championship game?

7. 2004 AFC Championship-Steelers 27, New England Patriots 41

After what can only be described as an abysmal 2003 season, the Steelers were once again poised to make a deep run in the playoffs in 2004. We drafted a QB from Miami of Ohio who led the team to a fifteen-win season.

We had a new offensive coordinator and our then-rookie QB, Ben Roethlisberger, would start thirteen contests, would throw for a little over two-thousand and six hundred yards, would throw seventeen TD passes en route to winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year awards.

As history would suggest, that meant absolutely nothing when we faced the Patriots yet again at home in another AFC Championship game. What was agonizing to me about this game is that we frankly had no chance to win this one.

We were down by twenty-one points in the second quarter and there was no hope that things were going to get any better. I remember thinking that for as good as Roethlisberger played in the regular season was as poorly as he played in that championship game. I also remember thinking this: How many more times are we going to get the AFC Championship game and lose?

6. 2016 AFC Champhionship-Steelers 17, New England Patriots 36

Following a season where the Steelers lost in the Divisional round to the Denver Broncos, we bounced back in 2016, finishing with eleven wins and making yet another AFC Championship game where we would yet again lose to what had become our nemesis, the New England Patriots.

Frankly, this was yet another (I know I keep using the term 'yet another' but when it comes to these Patriots games, that term seems appropriate) contest that was over before it started. By the fourth quarter, we found ourselves down by twenty-seven points, but the reality was this: we were never in the game.

I don't know what it was about the Patriots but we just could never figure them out. What was agonizing to me about this game was the fact that we were six seasons removed from our last Super Bowl appearance and eight seasons removed from our last Super Bowl victory. I couldn't help but think that this game may have been our last hurrah and our last, best chance to make it to the 'big game'.

5. 1997 AFC Champhionship-Steelers 21, Denver Broncos 24

Following the loss to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl XXX, Neil O'Donnell, our then-starting quarterback, found his way to the New York Jets via free agency. Ron Erhardt, our then-offensive coordinator, whom I believe is arguably the best offensive coordinator in Steelers history, also found his way to the Jets as their offensive coordinator.

By the 1997 season rolled around, Kordell Stewart had become the Steelers starting quarterback. We did quite well with Stewart at the helm, finishing with eleven regular season wins; however, Stewart had one flaw that would come back to rear its ugly head in the conference championship game.

During the 1997 season, Stewart threw seventeen INTs, not seven but seventeen. There were times when I was left with nothing to do but shake my head at some of the decisions he made. I didn't play football past the high school level, but even I know that when you throw into double and sometimes triple coverage bad things tend to happen.

Bad things did happen against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game, which was particularly agonizing for me because we had lost to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl in 1995, lost an ugly game to the Patriots in the Divisional round in 1996, and got back to the AFC Championship game in 1997 but lost. When were we finally going to get over the hump?

4. 1977 Divisional Round-Steelers 21, Denver Broncos 34

If you had the privilege of watching Steelers football in the 1970s as I did, you no doubt fondly remember those days as being 'our' decade. We got to the playoffs every season from 1972 to 1979 and won four Super Bowls along the way, but we probably could have and should have won two more.

In 1977, I was eight years old. Having been born and raised in Philadelphia, I was not privy to the news of the day, as it were, when it came to the Steelers. I was shocked to learn that drama, to use a current phrase, engulfed our team to the point where the 1977 Steelers may have been a doomed team from the 'get-go'.

What I remember about that season was the Steelers inconsistent play. We would win a game, then lose a game, win a game then lose a game, and on and on and on; however, we won the then AFC Central Division, bypassed the Wild Card round, went straight to the Divisional round, and then went straight home after that. Talk about agonizing.

3. 1976 AFC Champhionship-Steelers 7, Oakland Raiders 24

Like 1977, we found ourselves back in the playoffs in 1976, this time advancing to the AFC Championship game to face our nemesis of the decade of the 1970s, the Oakland Raiders, now the Las Vegas Raiders.

While I don't recall much of the 1976 regular season, I do recall, albeit vaguely, the Steelers dominating the then-Baltimore Colts in the Divisional Round. I watched the game several years later and again recently. The Colts really had no chance, particularly after we built a nineteen-point lead, but the win essentially cost us a possible trip to the Super Bowl.

Franco Harris, who had one-hundred and thirty-two yards against the Colts, was unavailable to us for the AFC Championship game because of an injury. Without the power-run game at our disposal, the Raiders controlled the game and cruised to a fairly easy win.

What was agonizing to me about the loss in the AFC Championship game was this: we had just won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1974 and 1975 and probably would have beaten the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Imagine what a 'three-peat' would have meant to us for the remainder of the decade.

2. 1994 AFC Champhioship-Steelers 13, San Diego Chargers 17

When Chuck Noll announced his retirement following the 1991 season, I knew it was time for him and the Steelers to move on. It seemed like we 'limped' our way through most of the decade of the 1980s, only to find it not that much better for the first two years of the 1990s.

After a losing campaign in 1991, we hired Bill Cowher, a Pittsburgh native, as our head coach. All I knew about Cowher at the time was that he played for the Philadelphia Eagles (I was born and raised in Philadelphia and was only able to get news about the hometown teams) and the Cleveland Browns.

Cowher got out the gate quickly, as it were, as evidenced by the fact that we made the playoffs in 1992, 1993, and, again, in 1994, finishing with twelve wins in the regular season and finding ourselves back in the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1984.

It felt like the Steelers were back to doing what the Steelers did best, which was win Super Bowls. Alas, it was not to be. What was agonizing to me was this: we were at home facing a tough Chargers team, but we were at home. I thought that would be enough to put us over the top. It was not.

In all fairness, I don't know that we would have bested San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIX, but we will never know as we never got the chance to see how the game would have played out. Doubly agonizing if you ask me.

1. 1984 AFC Champhionship Game-Steelers 28, Miam Dolphis 45

If you've stayed with our discussion up to now, you may be surprised at my choice for the most agonizing playoff loss in Steelers history. Allow me to put this into perspective. I have been a Steelers fan since the 1970s.

When I started watching games with an understanding of what was transpiring on the field, we had already won two Super Bowls. With fond memories of the 1978 and 1979 seasons, I just assumed that the party would continue into the decade of the 1980s.

Nothing could have been further from the truth save the 1984 season, which was the only season during the 1980s that we went to the AFC Championship game. Ironically, I remember that season as being consistently inconsistent.

We would win a game, then lose a game, then win a couple of games, and then lose a couple of games. It was frankly maddening, particularly for a 15-year-old who was surrounded by Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland ( Las Vegas) Raiders fans and only one other Steelers fan.

Nonetheless, we advanced to the AFC Championship game after beating the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round, something I did not think we were going to do since we were facing the Broncos on their 'turf'.

After beating the Broncos, I thought we at least had a chance against the Dolphins, but I was sadly mistaken. The closest we got was within ten points, but we turned the ball over four times and surrendered four-hundred and thirty-five yards passing and a total of five-hundred and sixty-nine yards.

After that loss, I realized that the dynasty had come to an end. I knew it would be a while until we played in another AFC championship game. I remember being profoundly sad at that moment. It took a decade to get back there. That also made me profoundly sad.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.