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Saunders: AFC’s Best Show How Far Steelers Have to Go

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AFC Wild Card Game

The Pittsburgh Steelers watched the AFC Divisional Playoffs from home this weekend, following last week’s playoff elimination at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a position they’ve become distressingly used to.

The Steelers lost in the Wild Card round for the second consecutive season, and they missed the playoffs entirely the previous two years. The Steelers haven’t played in the second weekend of the postseason since 2017, and that was an embarrassing home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In the mean time, the Steelers have gotten a good look at what’s keeping them from reaching that stage. 

As the nation was enthralled by the instant classic back-and-forth battle between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, it was a spectacle the Steelers and those that follow the team have become fairly used to.

Pittsburgh was eliminated from the postseason by Patrick Mahomes and company in the first round and went 1-1 against the Chiefs and Bills this season — their first win in three tries against Allen. Waiting for the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game will be the Cincinnati Bengals, with young star Joe Burrow, who beat the Steelers twice this season.

There was a time that the AFC’s top quarterbacks could reliably be written in ink before a season: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and then all the rest.

That paradigm remains, but with the Steelers on the outside looking in. Allen, Burrow, Mahomes aren’t going anywhere any time soon, and it seems impossible to imagine any other team that doesn’t have that kind of playmaker at the quarterback position advancing beyond that group.

With Roethlisberger hanging up his cleats after the 2021 season, the Steelers are now on the hunt for a successor that can return the team to the top of the AFC.

That will be a tall task. The team drafts 20th in this spring’s annual selection, which is not where prime-time passers are usually found. The Chiefs got Mahomes at No. 10 in 2017. Allen went to the Bills at No. 7 in 2018. Burrow was the No. 1 overall selection in 2020.

The Steelers have been loathe to go into the kind of full-blown rebuild that results in a team picking in that position. But, intentionally or otherwise, it’s how they got Roethlisberger and got into that position in the first place.

There are exceptions to that paradigm. The Patriots found Brady in a later round. The Tennessee Titans made it to the second round with journeyman Ryan Tannehill and a strong running game. The Los Angeles Rams reclaimed Matthew Stafford from a horrible situation in Detroit.

Those can be blueprints for the Steelers, but it seems much more likely that in order to find their way to the other side of a rebuild, some more significant pain will be in order.

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