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Welcome to Pittsburgh: A city where every sports team lives on the playoff bubble

In the spring of 2009, I sat down to watch an NCAA regional final matchup between Pitt and Villanova.

The Panthers entered the 2008/2009 NCAA Tournament as a number-one seed and made it to the Elite Eight for the first time since it was actually called that. I was stoked. There was no doubt in my mind that Pitt would reach its first Final Four in men’s basketball.

Unfortunately, Scottie Reynolds ruined my dreams with a last-second layup that Panthers fans are still unable to watch to this day.

I was stunned. As a Pittsburgh sports fan, I wasn’t used to that kind of disappointment. After all, the Steelers had just won their second Super Bowl in four seasons. As for the Penguins? They had lost in the Stanley Cup Final the previous summer and were a few months away from hoisting Lord Stanley for the first time in 17 years.

Fast-forward to today, and the Panthers, following a disheartening loss at Clemson on Tuesday night, are listed as one of the “next four out” in the NCAA’s latest bracket projections. I always wondered what was worse than being one of the “first four out,” but I guess that’s it.

The Penguins are on a bit of a roll lately, winners of three of four, but are still seven points out of third place in the Metropolitan Division and seven points out of the second wildcard spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

The Penguins were in a similar position a year ago and missed the playoffs in the final days of the regular season–the first time since the 2005/2006 campaign.

The Steelers went into Week 18 of the 2023 regular season needing a win and some help in order to barely squeak into the postseason as the AFC’s seventh and final seed. Pittsburgh entered the final week of the previous two seasons facing similar scenarios.

The Steelers got the help they needed this year and two years earlier, but they didn’t get the help they needed at the end of the 2022 campaign.

  • What about the Pirates? Spring training just started, and they’re already on the postseason bubble.

Actually, following so many last-place finishes in recent years, the Buccos being on the playoff bubble would be a welcome sight at season’s end.

Such is life for a Pittsburgh sports fan in the 2020s. We get excited about terms like “On the Bubble” and “In the Hunt.” We root for arch rivals. We cheer for Joe Flacco and Bill Belichick to take care of their own business. We worry about games in hand. We learn about Quad 1 and Quad 2 victories, and how each is weighted when the selection committee picks its 68 teams on Selection Sunday.

High seeds? We don’t care about high seeds. We’ll take any seed. Homefield advantage? Just sneak in and see what happens.

The Arizona Diamondbacks won 84 games last year but made it to the World Series as the sixth seed in the National League. What a role model for the Pirates to follow in 2024 and beyond!

It’s a weird era in Pittsburgh sports. The teams aren’t horrible, not even the Pirates at the moment, but nobody expects them to win anything of consequence.

Just win, baby? Nah, just get into the postseason by the skin of your teeth, I’m begging you.

What was once the City of Champions has evolved into the Outskirts of the Playoffs.


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