Can the Steelers Make the Playoffs After Their Second-worst Start in 10 Years?

Most NFL teams would be more than happy to face a potentially season-defining game at home against a team with a 1-3 record. That is precisely the situation the Pittsburgh Steelers will find themselves in when they welcome the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field on Sunday.

The Falcons have lost their last two games, both on them in overtime and both of them on home turf, and have the league's third-worst defense. For the Steelers, however, the scenario is far from ideal, given that they too are on a two-game losing streak, with both defeats coming in front of their fans.

Pittsburgh's issues on and off the field have been well documented, and with a 1-2-1 record heading into Sunday, they have little margin for error.

It is a far cry from preseason expectations. In June, Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas offered 10-1 odds on the Steelers to win the Super Bowl, 5-1 to win their conference and as short as 2-5 to win the AFC North for the fourth time in five years.

Pittsburgh's over/under stood at 10.5, the second highest in the league alongside the Philadelphia Eagles and only lower than the New England Patriots' 11. By comparison, the same bookmaker now has them at 30/1.

A look at the history books shows the Steelers have got off to an uncharacteristically slow start this season—a trend that was also mirrored at the start of games, with the Steelers giving their opponents a combined 35-0 lead over their last two games.

As the graphic below by Statista illustrates, over the past decade, only once did Pittsburgh endure a worse start than this year, going 0-4 in 2013.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' performance over the past decade show that a crucial start is key to their chances of making the postseason. Statista

The Steelers rallied after their Week 5 bye, but two consecutive defeats across November and December saw them finish the season 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year for the first time since 1999.

The Steelers had also gone 8-8 a year earlier, when they were 1-2 going into their bye in Week 4, before giving their record a more respectable 2-2 look after beating the Eagles in Week 5.

Five wins in six games had Pittsburgh sitting comfortably at 6-3 halfway through November, before a calamitous run of five defeats in the final seven games put any postseason aspirations to bed.

The Steelers have reached the Super Bowl twice in the past decade, and in both cases, in 2008 and 2010, they got off to a 3-1 start. Coach Mike Tomlin's men also won three of their first four games in the past two campaigns, losing the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots in 2016 and falling to the Jaguars in the divisional playoffs last year.

Of course, the Steelers can still turn their seasons around, and a look through the NFL annals shows inauspicious starts can develop into postseason runs.

In 2001, the New England Patriots went 1-3 before embarking on a run of nine consecutive wins between regular season and playoffs that saw them clinch Super Bowl XXXVI, their first title.

Six years later, the New York Giants lost both of their opening games before winning six in a row and somehow reaching the playoffs, despite losing four of their next eight games. They went all the way to win Super Bowl XLII.

In 1992, the Chargers, then in their San Diego incarnation, began the season with four straight defeats, but 11 wins in the next 12 games dragged them to the postseason, where they were thrashed by the Miami Dolphins in the divisional playoffs.

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Steelers fans look on in the final moments of a 26-14 win by the Baltimore Ravens over the Steelers at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on September 30. Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Dolphins also stopped the Bills in the wild card playoffs in 1998, but Buffalo had done well to get that far to begin with, after starting the season 0-3.

Three years earlier, the Lions had also lost their first three games and were then 3-6. However, a seven-game winning streak saw Detroit finish 10-6, before losing to the Eagles in the wild card playoffs.

In fact, the Steelers could take a leaf from their own book. Having won back-to-back titles in Super Bowls IX and X, the Steelers began the 1976 season 1-4, before rallying to finish 10-4 and losing to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship.