Sunday morning was full of hope for plenty of South Florida football fans. For Dolphins fans, already jaded by an up-and-down season, that hope was dashed early in the day. For another brand of football fan, however, the day was a nail-biting, runaway mine train of emotions.
Aside from the Florida and New York teams, no professional sports franchise has more South Florida support than the Pittsburgh Steelers. With the Steelers in town to play the Dolphins -- and competing against seven other teams for a playoff spot -- many Pittsburgh fans had a long, drunken, emotional weekend.
The day started with much promise. All the reigning Super Bowl champs had to do was come to Florida, beat the hot-and-cold Miami Dolphins on their own (not-so-warm) turf, then hope and pray that a complicated combination of AFC teams in front of them lost. It seemed like a long shot, but as one unsober man at Wayward Sailor Pub told me, "the Steelers did the impossible a few years ago" when they went into the playoffs as a six seed and won the Super Bowl.
The Wayward Sailor is one of the many unofficial Steeler-watching headquarters around South Florida. Located at Federal Highway and Oakland Park Boulevard, the walls are adorned with jerseys from Steelers legends, names like Lambert, Bradshaw, Greene. The bar is decorated with black and gold, and every time the Steelers score, the bar passes out yellow shots.
When Ike Taylor intercepted Chad Henne, sealing the Pittsburgh victory, a roar erupted in the bar. But the mood was still tense. The patrons were still nervous. "We still have three more games to win," Wayward Sailor's owner, Mark Winkler, told me. Since Houston beat New England, Pittsburgh fans needed wins from the Raiders, the Chiefs, and the Bengals later that night. "I don't think any Steeler fan has ever rooted for the New England Patriots before today," Winkler said, "but we sure were today. That one hurt us. Everything is still up in the air."
All year, Winkler and his crew have been watching Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward and locals Santonio Holmes and Tyrone Carter ebb and flow. Bad start, a quick turnaround, a long losing streak, and a desperate push over the past few weeks.
In the afternoon game, the Kansas City did its part, beating Denver handily. Baltimore played Oakland close the entire way, but the Raiders had to use flob-quarterback-bust Jamarcus Russell in the second half, and it just wasn't enough. A final incompletion from Russell marked the end of the Steelers season and the beginning of the long wait until next year.