The Pittsburgh Steelers, Cryptodynasty
How to win like an almost-champion.
With conditions ripe for winning, how have the Steelers lost the big one? Every which way. The Steelers have lost to teams like the 1994 Chargers, who sniffed competence only briefly. They've been tripped up by legitimate dynasties, losing to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX and to the Patriots in the 2001 and 2004 AFC playoffs. In 2002 they lost to Tennessee, a parallel cryptodynasty. And they've often risen to the occasion at precisely the wrong time. After getting throttled by the Patriots in the 1996 playoffs, the Steelers got their revenge in 1997 … and then promptly lost to the Broncos in the AFC championship game.
When cryptodynasties get over the hump, it's generally the wrong hump. In 1994, the Knicks finally vanquished the hated Bulls before bowing to Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets. The Jazz took out the Rockets two years later, only to lose to the revived Bulls twice in a row. After losing three straight NFC championship games, the Philadelphia Eagles developed such a complex about winning the conference title that they forgot about the part where you're supposed to win the Super Bowl. The stench of loserdom surrounding Peyton Manning is perhaps too strong for Indianapolis to become a true cryptoynasty, but their domination of the Patriots on Monday Night Football was quintessential cryptodynastic behavior: Slay your nemesis at the exact moment when they cease to be relevant, then find a new nemesis immediately.
It's not unprecedented for a cryptodynasty to become a legitimate dynasty. If the Steelers win on Sunday, football historians will consider their years of almost-victory an essential step that "taught them how to win." The Chicago Bulls, for one, were the Pistons' perennial roadkill before getting over the hump and winning six titles. But the most common outcome is for cryptodynasties to rise and fall without anyone taking notice. Have you bothered to observe that the Sacramento Kings aren't good anymore? Remember the Tennessee Titans?
And what of the Seahawks, who've now made the playoffs three years in a row? They're a cryptodynasty-in-waiting. Unless, of course, they screw it all up by winning.*
*Correction, Feb. 5: Due to a copy-editing error, the final three paragraphs of this article were omitted when the article was published. They have been restored.