Playoff losses are never easy, but the Saints, Steelers, and Falcons must now move forward from especially crushing defeats.
This past weekend’s slate of NFL playoff games had just about everything a football fan could ask for.
There was routine dominance from one of the greatest dynasties in recent memory. There was an offensive slugfest and an underdog triumph from a team overlooked, and another from a team that was all but written off. Last, but certainly not least, there was a walk-off touchdown of the most epic proportions, the first of its kind in NFL postseason history.
But when the dust had settled and football’s Final Four was etched in stone, three teams sat on the outside looking in by the narrowest of margins. No disrespect meant to the Tennessee Titans, who had a solid (albeit mildly disappointing) season and should be commended for their come-from-behind victory in the Wild Card round. But they looked dead in the water against the Patriots at halftime and were always a long-shot to advance.
The Saints, Steelers, and Falcons, on the other hand, came up just a few seconds, a few yards, and a few costly decisions away from playing for their conference championship. Each team now faces an offseason filled with questions of “what if?”, and perhaps more importantly, “what next?”
It’s fair to wonder which team’s heartbreak is worst. Easy money, of course, is on the Saints. After all, they were on the wrong side of the “Minnesota Miracle”, one of the most improbable plays of all time. According to the Win Probability Index, the Saints had a 96% chance of victory with 14 seconds left, and even that seems a bit low. Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs, however, had different plans. Marcus Williams and company will surely replay that moment in their heads for the rest of their lives.
The Steelers, on the other hand, must eat crow for the crime of overlooking their opponent. According to them, their victory over the Jaguars was almost assured. Despite getting manhandled by Jacksonville in Week 5, Pittsburgh’s pregame attention was devoted to the Patriots. Safety Mike Mitchell said they could beat New England anywhere. Le’Veon Bell assured fans on Twitter that there would be back-to-back “round 2’s”, highlighting the widely-assumed rematch with the Pats. However, a dominant offensive performance by the Jags and a few questionable calls later, and it’s a rematch we’ll have to wait until next season to see.
Next we have the Falcons, a team no stranger to heartbreak. But while their 15-10 loss to the Eagles pales in comparison to the torment suffered last season, they came up just two yards short of their second consecutive NFC title game. The game-winning touchdown pass sailed through the outstretched hands of Julio Jones, and with it went Atlanta’s chance to avenge last year’s collapse.
Despite the differences, these teams now find themselves in similar situations. Each failed to capitalize on a year in its championship window, and history has shown that —with the exception of the Patriots — those are quick to close. The Saints are a young and improving team, but their leader and most important player just turned 39 years old. While Drew Brees has yet to show major signs of decline, Father Time is undefeated. It’s also worth mentioning his impending free agency; although he’s made it clear he wants to return to New Orleans, there’s still a chance he bolts if their offer isn’t to his liking.
In Pittsburgh, age has not been as kind to Ben Roethlisberger. Despite being four years younger than Brees, the Steelers’ quarterback is routinely half-man, half-ice, and his on-field mobility clearly isn’t what it used to be.
While he still combines with Bell and Antonio Brown to form perhaps the deadliest “Big Three” in the NFL, it’s fair to question how much he has left in the tank. Other concerns include Bell’s free agency, and the uncertainty surrounding offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s departure.
It’s crazy to think that the Falcons’ window may be closing as well, but the team took a serious step back from their 2016 form. Part of this can be attributed to the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but the emergence of other impressive NFC teams is an issue for Atlanta as well. The Eagles, Rams, and Vikings are all built to win for the long-term and should be perennial conference favorites for years to come.
This is not to suggest that these three teams blew any chance they had to win a Super Bowl for the next decade. This season, above all else, has shown just how unpredictable the NFL can be. But title chances are undeniably fleeting, which makes the heartbreaking losses suffered by these teams even tougher to swallow.
People often forget that for there to be epic comebacks and epic upsets, there has to be a losing side. For every post-game celebration and party, there is a quiet locker room, and long offseasons filled with regret. For every thrill of victory, there is the agony of defeat.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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