Sunday, January 09, 2005
Buckle up, Pittsburgh, the occasionally exasperating but mostly exhilarating four-month ride you've been on with the Steelers is about to get better. The regular season is behind us, the playoffs in front of us. In the games ahead, the curves will be sharper, the straightaways more thrilling, the drama more intense and the outcome more important.
That's the good part about the playoffs. The bad part is this: The ride could be bumpy.
Understandably, there's an almost unanimity of opinion across the country that the Steelers, who are 15-1 with a 14-game winning streak, have the best team in the American Football Conference and, as such, are the favorite to advance to the Super Bowl. All that means is the Steelers have the best chance of reaching the Super Bowl -- not the only chance.
Beginning Saturday, when their likely opponent will be the New York Jets and, should they win, eight days later when their probable opponent will be New England or Indianapolis, the Steelers will be playing against the other elite teams of the AFC. Those teams want to go to the Super Bowl as badly as the Steelers do. Their fans believe in them as fervently as Steelers fans do in their team.
The Jets have Chad Pennington, who missed a few games because of injury but had nearly the same numbers as Ben Roethlisberger; Curtis Martin, a Pitt and Allderdice High School product, who led the NFL in rushing with almost 1,700 yards. The Colts have Peyton Manning, on the track to becoming an all-time great, at quarterback; Edgerrin James, the No. 3 rusher in the AFC; and Marvin Harrison, who caught more balls for more yards than Hines Ward. The Patriots have won two of the past three Super Bowls and have Tom Brady, the man who started at quarterback in both those games; and Corey Dillon, the No. 2 rusher in the AFC.
None of those teams has the defensive excellence of the Steelers, but all are capable of getting to and winning the Super Bowl. In other words, all are capable of beating the Steelers.
Should that happen -- should the Steelers falter -- what will be the reaction of this community? That response will tell us a lot about ourselves.
Past playoff losses by Steelers teams that were favored have resulted in widespread massive disappointment, which was appropriate, and the unleashing of bitter criticism, which was most inappropriate.
Hear this, folks. Regardless of what happens Saturday -- even if the Steelers lose in a shutout -- this season has been nothing but an absolute joy. No one should consider it anything but a monumental success. The thrills the Steelers have given this town, this region and their passionate fans across the country cannot be taken away or be undone by even the most ignominious of defeats.
Unfortunately, too many people, who take this stuff way too seriously, will react with the most unsuitable behavior. They will act as if they'd lost their first born instead of a football game.
In all certainty, Bill Cowher will take the brunt of the criticism. Regardless of the script of a defeat, Cowher will be charged with being outcoached.
That was the case when the favored Steelers lost to New England in the AFC title game after the 2001 season. Cowher was tortured by bitter fans after that defeat, although the Patriots' margin of victory was a result of two Steelers offensive linemen -- Marvel Smith and Rich Tylski -- being unable to block their man on a field-goal attempt. They failed at something that usually has a 99 percent rate of success, and the kick was blocked and returned for a touchdown that produced the margin of victory.
That was Cowher's fault?
If the Steelers lose in this postseason -- even if its in the Super Bowl -- frustrated fans will lash out at Cowher, completely forgetting his immense contributions. If he did nothing more than keeping this team together in the face of a seemingly insurmountable and never-ending rash of injuries, he should be coach of the year. But his contributions go beyond that.
By all we've seen this season, the Steelers should win the AFC playoffs and advance to and win the Super Bowl.
But sports don't work that way. Upsets happen all the time. If that's what happens to the Steelers, the first and only thing fans of the team should say is, "Thanks for the memories."
(Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1468.)