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How Much Would Expanded NFL Playoffs Help the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Most fans don’t want expanded NFL playoffs.

And Roger Goodell doesn’t care.

Principal Goodell tried to ram expanded playoffs down everyone’s throat for 2014, but the matter wasn’t voted upon at the owners meetings in Atlanta.

Expanded playoffs are coming, though, probably by 2015.

So enjoy one last year of the NFL as we know it. Because in 2015 it won’t be the same.

Six teams in each conference currently make the playoffs. The teams with the two best records in each conference earn a first-round bye. Under the proposed plan, seven teams in each conference would make the playoffs, with only the top seed earning a bye.

The NFL has had a 12-team playoff field for the last quarter-century and become the most popular sports league in North America during that time. Now Goodell wants to mess with the formula.

Does anyone remember New Coke?

Wonderful, some Pittsburgh Steelers fans might be thinking. NOW they decide to add playoff teams, after the Steelers would have made it as a seventh seed in 2012 and 2013.

Let’s step into our De Lorean (and pardon this article’s second reference from 1985) and explore an alternate universe where 14 teams would have made the playoffs every year since 2008.

If the Steelers went back in time like Marty McFly to the end of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, they’d run into Biff right away. Tom Brady would be ready to bully them once again in the playoffs.

And if the Steelers could ball up their fist like Crispin Glover and knock out Brady and the Patriots, Peyton Manning would await.

Had the Steelers’ 8-8 record been good enough to get them into the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, they’d have had to beat Brady and then Manning on the road to reach the AFC championship game.

In each of those seasons, the Broncos were the No. 1 seed and the Patriots were the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

The Steelers haven’t beaten Brady at Gillette Stadium in three tries since 2002. They allowed a franchise-worst 55 points there in 2013. After that Week 9 loss, the Steelers won six of their last eight games. Maybe they had a little momentum and could have shocked the Patriots. In that unlikely event, how would they stop Manning in the divisional round? That defense couldn’t stop Tim Tebow in Denver when it was two years younger.

In real life, Manning and the Broncos proved vulnerable in 2012. The Baltimore Ravens went to Denver and stunned the Broncos on their way to winning the Super Bowl. Could that have been the Steelers, as an extra wild-card team, getting hot at the right time and winning their seventh championship?

Not likely.

To get to Denver in these hypothetical 2012 playoffs, the Steelers first would have had to find a way to beat Brady in Foxboro without Heath Miller and Ike Taylor. Miller tore up his knee in a Week 16 loss to the Bengals and Taylor fractured his right fibula at Baltimore in Week 12. Ben Roethlisberger still wasn’t at full strength after spraining his shoulder in November, which is among the reasons the Steelers lost five of their last seven. They would have limped into Gillette Stadium had there been a 14-team playoff field in 2012.

How many more humiliating defeats in New England can Steelers fans take? We’d have had to stomach at least one more, probably two, if Goodell’s expanded playoff boondoggle were already in effect.

At least expanded playoffs would have given the Steelers a chance to make a run at a seventh Lombardi Trophy in each of the last two seasons, right?

Well, not necessarily, because there’s a chance they’d still be stuck on five Super Bowl titles with expanded playoffs working against them in 2008 and 2010.

The Steelers reached the Super Bowl in each of those seasons with the help of a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed. They’d have kissed their bye good-bye if they had to play a wild-card game against the No. 7 seed.

In 2010, instead of resting up for a week before hosting the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional playoffs, the Steelers would have had to take care of Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers in a wild-card game. They’d have been home, but their path to Super Bowl XLV would have been more treacherous.

In 2008, the seventh-seeded Patriots would have come to Pittsburgh for a wild-card game. Brady would have been in street clothes. Bernard Pollard ended his season in Week 1 that year. The Steelers went to New England and handled Matt Cassel and the Patriots 33-10 in December.

The Patriots might not have been such a daunting task had they made the playoffs in 2008. Still, they won their last four games that year after losing to the Steelers. One of those victories was a 47-7 win over an Arizona Cardinals team that damn near beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII six weeks later.

Even if Brady couldn’t hurt the Steelers in this scenario, Bill Belichick-coached Patriots teams are 4-2 in Pittsburgh, and the memory of conference-championship losses at home to the Patriots in 2001 and 2004 would have made this wild-card match-up a discomforting prospect.

Fortunately, the Patriots were not a playoff team in 2008. Expanded playoffs were nothing more than a marble rolling around in Goodell’s head.

Now, the commish’s pet project is a year or so away from becoming reality.

The good news is, the Steelers can continue along their meandering path of mediocrity and have a better chance of making the playoffs. The bad news is, if the Steelers get good again, there’s a bigger risk of getting offed by an inferior playoff opponent.

So adding playoff teams doesn’t make winning a championship any easier for the Steelers or any other team.

Someone ought to knock on Goodell’s head and say “Think, McFly. Think.”

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