Uh, oh. They're favored. What do the No. 6-seeded Steelers do now? How do they cope without their handy and ever-so-familiar underdog mentality? It was here just a minute ago. Can they even play without it in Super Bowl XL in Detroit?
Look, what Pittsburgh has accomplished by winning three consecutive road playoff games -- against the top three seeds in the stacked AFC -- is remarkable and shouldn't be cheapened. But you gotta love how many Steelers got up after the win over the Broncos and said nobody believed they could win at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver. It was them against the world and all that complete nonsense professional athletes eagerly buy into every season as if it was Coca-Cola stock in the 1920s.
Actually, the wild-card Steelers (14-5) were favored on the road against the Bengals in the first round. We checked. So somebody expected them to win. I myself picked them to triumph in both Cincinnati and Denver. Ah, but let's not let facts get in the way of a good motivational tool.
Year in and year out, throughout the regular season and the playoffs, the rhetoric never changes in the NFL. There's always somebody claiming to be disrespected and disbelieved, and they milk that tired angle for all it's worth. Shoot, I'm always saying roughly the same thing to my editors, and I only cover the league.
Steelers receiver Hines Ward stood up and spoke the unvarnished truth at one point during his postgame press conference in Denver. He said the burden of expectation was the difference between this year's happy-go-lucky, playoff-road-game-winning Steelers and last season's top-seeded-but-flop-sweating version that should have lost at home in the divisional round to the Jets -- and did lose (badly) at home against New England in the AFC title game.
"This year, there was no expectation,'' Ward said. "We were the sixth seed. Nobody expected much out of us. There was more pressure on [our opponents] than us.''
News flash, folks: It's easier to do almost anything when the pressure isn't on. I routinely tie my shoelaces in four seconds flat, unless you tell me the elevator door is closing and I'd better get my fingers out of my ears and start making some knots right now or I'm going to have a bit of stair-climbing in my immediate future.