The night before the game Tomlin's message was simple: The most physical team will win. He even hung a sign at the team hotel with those words. Then the Steelers went out and proved their coach right in one of the most bone-crushing games in playoff history. There was Carey Davis's wicked opening-kickoff layout of Ravens special-teamer Daren Stone (who headed to Pittsburgh's bench before being redirected), Sweed's block and safety Ryan Clark's vicious fourth-quarter hit that floored Baltimore back Willis McGahee. The NFL doesn't like to glorify that kind of football, but the hits were seismic, one more jarring than the next.
It helped that Roethlisberger (255 yards and no picks) outplayed Baltimore rookie Joe Flacco (141 and three), guiding the Steelers to a 16--14 lead that always felt like it should have been bigger. Then with 4:39 left and the Ravens trying to mount a go-ahead drive, free safety Troy Polamalu read the quarterback's eyes ("I tried to look him off, but it didn't work," Flacco said) and made a brilliant interception. Looking more like the running back he was in high school, Polamalu weaved through traffic on a 40-yard return for the clinching score. "Everyone calls [the Ravens'] Ed Reed the best safety, and [the Colts'] Bob Sanders was the [defensive] player of the year last year," said Clark. "But Troy's so cerebral. No question, he's the best. He knows what's going to happen before it happens."
That's the way Roethlisberger is getting. He's confident whether inside the pocket or out of it. His second-quarter TD pass came when he broke to his left, stutter-stepped back right and floated the ball to wideout Santonio Holmes, who darted through the defense for the final 49 yards. Quite a change from the Super Bowl three years ago. When Pittsburgh beat Seattle, the magnitude of the moment and the Seahawks' multiple defensive fronts confounded Roethlisberger as he struggled to a 9-of-21, two-interception day. Afterward he sat at his locker, head down, miserable about his performance. "It was pretty bad for a couple weeks after that," Roethlisberger recalled Sunday night. "I kept thinking I let the team down. I almost lost the game. Now, I feel like a different quarterback. Different man. Different team."
Different coach. It's remarkable that Tomlin is already 15th among NFL coaches in tenure and that his former assistant when he was the secondary coach in Tampa Bay, 32-year-old Raheem Morris, was hired last Friday to coach the Bucs. The day before the championship game, Tomlin was asked if Morris was ready to lead an NFL team.
"None of us is ready," he said. "I wasn't. What you need to know, you have to experience. I'm the type who never anticipates transition being easy. In fact, I anticipate it being miserable. But with that misery can come great gain if you embrace the change."
Maybe Sweed learned just that lesson from his coach on Sunday. "He's going to be one of those guys who stays here for 40 years," backup quarterback Byron Leftwich says of Tomlin. "He's perfect for this job."
Tomlin has already shown he's the right man for the Steelers, a coach in the mold of Noll and Cowher. But that matters little to him. Right now he's only concerned with one more game, one more win.