Posted: Tuesday January 24, 2006 11:56AM; Updated: Tuesday January 24, 2006 4:32PM
The truth about the Super Bowl-bound Steelers is that while they just barely made the playoffs as a sixth seed, they were clearly not your father's No. 6 seed. They went 11-5 in a very deep AFC this season, winning just as many games as the team that won the division (Cincinnati), and more than the AFC East champ (10-6 New England).
This was not your typical 9-7, happy-to-be-here wild card team. The Steelers were only one year removed from being 15-1 and the AFC's top seed, with one key subtraction from that squad (No. 2 receiver Plaxico Burress, who signed with the Giants). Yes, Pittsburgh lost its way for a bit, losing three in a row at one point. But they also had health problems at quarterback in November, starting three different passers (BenRoethlisberger, CharlieBatch and Tommy Maddox) in a three-game stretch. That will make a lot of teams look mediocre.
Including the playoffs, the Steelers are 12-3 in games Roethlisberger has started this season, and 2-2 in the games he has missed. Winning 12 of 15 is not usually the stuff of No. 6 seeds and wild-card berths. For his career, Roethlisberger is now a heady 26-4 as a starter (.867), the best winning percentage of any quarterback with a minimum of 25 starts from the 1970's merger on.
Pittsburgh entered the postseason in a lowly position, but it did so with a tried and true playoff-winning formula: An excellent defensive front seven that creates pressure on the opposing quarterback; a reliable running game that's been productive since the dawn of time; and a young but ridiculously mature quarterback who is blossoming into one of the game's elite stars.
I'll take my chances in the playoffs with those ingredients any day. Road games or no road games. Respect or no respect. The Steelers are underdogs no more. And maybe they never should have been to begin with.
1. Now that Seattle has made its first Super Bowl in its 30-year history, the ranks of non-Super Bowl clubs have shrunk to six: Houston, Cleveland, New Orleans, Arizona, Detroit, and Jacksonville.
Curiously, five of those six cities/areas have hosted a Super Bowl, leaving Cleveland as the only NFL city that has never had a sniff of the Super Bowl in any way, shape or form. It has John Elway to thank for that, of course.
2. Denver's loss to Pittsburgh made it eight times in the past 14 years that the home team has lost the AFC title game. In the previous 14 years before 1992, AFC home teams went 11-3 in the conference championship game.
3. Is Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren better than Don Shula, Bill Parcells, Dick Vermeil and Dan Reeves? By at least one key barometer he will be if he leads Seattle over Pittsburgh in Detroit. It will make him the first head coach to win a Super Bowl with two different teams. The other four coaches also led two separate teams to the game, but couldn't finish the job. Former Colts and Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank won an NFL title in 1958 in Baltimore, and a Super Bowl with New York 10 years later.
4. Anybody have Seattle and Pittsburgh meeting in the Super Bowl in their preseason crystal ball? Anyone? We're waiting. Both were playoff teams in 2004, so it's not like it was a one-in-a-1,000 type of Super Bowl pairing. Still, if anyone was touting a Seahawks-Steelers matchup, I missed it.
5. Job one for Gary Kubiak in Houston -- at least when it comes to the start of free agency in early March -- might be to lay the groundwork for luring Denver's five-time Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen to Texas. Upgrading Houston's perennially porous offensive line is a must, and Nalen has already said he'd be receptive to a reunion with Kubiak if he's not a high priority for the Broncos.