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Pittsburgh losing its reputation

By Bill Contz

For the Mirror

If you’re a Pittsburgh sports fan, please turn the channel now. You won’t like what you’re about to read.

Division champions usually earn the right to host playoff games. Those teams who fail to take advantage and advance through to the later rounds are much more exception than rule.

However, early playoff exits are now commonplace here in Pittsburgh, a city whose sports teams seem determined on establishing a reputation as a town where underdog postseason foes go to thrive.

The most recent example of this disturbing, choke-at-home phenomenon occurred last week when a sloppy Penguins club dropped not one but two games in overtime at PPG Paints Arena, squandered a 2-1 series lead and, despite an incredible 117-78 shots-on-goal advantage, exited stage left after six games courtesy of a pesky New York Islander team.

Eighteen weeks earlier, Heinz Field patrons watched in stunned disbelief as another inferior division rival sprinted to 35-10 halftime lead and an easy playoff win on a frigid January night.

The opponent, the hated Cleveland Browns, were making their first playoff appearance in 18 years and entered the postseason with both a negative point differential and a rookie head coach cheering from his Cleveland basement due to COVID-19 concerns.

The game was deja vu for a Pittsburgh defense, which three years prior surrendered an appalling 45 points to a Jacksonville team that found its way into the Buffalo end zone exactly once the previous week against the middling Bills.

In other words, the Steelers or Penguins weren’t exactly facing the eventual Lombardi Award or Stanley Cup champions in these hideous playoff losses.

Both laid colossal eggs, leaving fans scratching their collective heads.

City of champions? How about city of underperformers?

The public address announcer should stop playing Styx’s “Renegade” during postseason contests and instead go with a modified version of The Temptations’ hit “I Know I’m Losing (to) You.”

Both teams’ recent playoff track records are painfully revealing.

Despite entering the playoffs perched atop a very physical, competitive division, the Penguins’ latest effort leaves them with a poor 4-15 record in their past 19 playoff games.

Equally as alarming is Mike Tomlin’s anemic 3-6 playoff record since the Super Bowl loss to Green Bay over a decade ago, their 11-0 start to the 2020 season a distant memory.

Both teams feature aging stars whose best years are most assuredly behind them.

While yinzers argue that Ben Roethlisberger or Sidney Crosby can’t do it alone, the reality is that the former tossed four interceptions in the Cleveland loss while the latter logged exactly one point and zero goals over the final four games against the Islanders.

When their teams need them the most — the mark of a Hall of Fame player — neither player rose to the occasion.

I get the fact that pro sports is a zero sum game, but early-round exits by virtue of home losses especially after fighting all season to secure a division title should be unacceptable.

And yet it now happens in Pittsburgh with alarming frequency.

The time has come for both organizations to overhaul their rosters to actively seek and deploy younger, hungrier talent.

If they don’t then fans must come to grips with the fact that home field (or ice) advantage doesn’t really mean very much around here anymore.

Bill Contz was a starting offensive tackle on Penn State’s first national championship football team in 1982 and went on to play six seasons in the NFL with New Orleans and Cleveland. Contz published a book in 2017, “When the Lions Roared: Joe Paterno and One of College Football’s Greatest Teams.” He resides in Pittsburgh.

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