Mike Tomlin earns extra credit

PITTSBURGH -- The best head coach in the NFL? Easy. His Hoodiness -- Bill Belichick.

But after what the Pittsburgh Steelers did here Sunday night, maybe it's time to make a case for a No. 2. I pick the guy who casually strolled the Heinz Field sideline as if he were coaching a Pop Warner game, not the AFC Championship Game. I pick Mike Tomlin.

Without Tomlin, the Steelers wouldn't be going to their second Super Bowl in the past three years. They wouldn't have left New York Jets coach Rex Ryan subdued and (for him) nearly speechless after a 24-19 win. And they wouldn't have survived a season that featured mushroom clouds of controversy and adversity.

"He deserves to be coach of the year, as far as I'm concerned," said Steelers president Art Rooney II, pausing between handshakes with his players in the locker room. "He overcame a lot. He stuck with it the whole time. I'm proud of him."

The Steelers weren't supposed to be here. They were supposed to finish as low as third in the AFC North, behind the preseason favorite Baltimore Ravens and, if you can believe it now, the Cincinnati Bengals. I repeat, the Bengals.

But there was Tomlin on Sunday night, hoisting the AFC championship trophy over his head. There were the Steelers, openly mocking Jets linebacker Bart Scott's postgame rant of a week ago, when he accused the world of disrespecting his team.

"Can't wait!" said Steelers safety Ryan Clark, repeating Scott's famous phrase from that night. "Can't wait to get on that jet!"

Even Tomlin couldn't help himself.

"Next time we play, it's going to be personal too," he said as he entered the Steelers' locker room. It was a not-so-subtle reference to Ryan's "It's personal" proclamations before playoff game wins against Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts and Belichick's New England Patriots.

Ryan outschemed Manning and outcoached Belichick. But he couldn't do the same against Tomlin, who had his Steelers as sharp as shark teeth, especially in the first half, when they led 24-3.

"That first 30 minutes was conference champion-worthy," said Tomlin. "We kind of limped home, but we aren't going to complain about style points. It was an awesome effort from a lot of people in there from start to finish."

From start to finish. Not just the game, but the season.

At the start of the season, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was serving the first game of a league-imposed four-game suspension.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, a former Super Bowl MVP for the Steelers, had been traded to the Jets.

A rookie started at center on an already suspect offensive line.

Later, Tomlin would lose arguably the best defensive player in the league, safety Troy Polamalu, to an Achilles injury for two games.

Starting defensive end Aaron Smith would miss the last 10 games of the regular season, as well as both playoff games.

Rookie wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown would be pressed into quality minutes.

"It's just amazing," said offensive tackle Max Starks, who was placed on injured reserve at midseason. "No one's had to deal with more adversity and overcome it than Coach Tomlin has this year. What he's done -- to be going to his second Super Bowl in four years as a head coach -- is remarkable."

The team the Steelers will face in the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers, has overcome a mind-boggling list of injuries this season. But the Packers and coach Mike McCarthy didn't do without quarterback Aaron Rodgers for four games because of conduct unbecoming. They didn't do without, say, cornerback Charles Woodson for a small chunk of the late season.

"We went through a lot," said cornerback William Gay. "Some coaches probably couldn't handle keeping this team together."

The Steelers hired Tomlin in 2007, said Rooney, because "he's just the kind of person that can stand up in front of a room and keep their attention for a whole season. That's the key to it. He was just a special person."

Said team chairman Dan Rooney: "It was just him. When we talked to him we just realized he was the best."

The Steelers' veterans, many of whom had played for and won a Super Bowl with Tomlin's predecessor, Bill Cowher, were less convinced. Starks had barely heard of Tomlin. He wasn't alone.

"When Mike took over, a lot of guys were uncertain because a lot of guys didn't really know him," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. "But he's a players' coach."

"The first time he talked to us," Starks said, "there were some guys in the room who were older than him. The question was, could he lead this team? Could he steer the ship?

"The answer is yes."

Actually, the answer was in Ward's hand as he walked to his locker. It was a bottle of champagne. Between swigs of the bubbly, Ward sang, "Here we go, Steelers."

The Super Bowl got a little quieter without Ryan and the Jets, but it won't be any less interesting. Both the Steelers and Packers took weird, winding paths to Arlington, Texas.

"It's a unique group in there that has had a unique journey," Tomlin said. "So it's special. But they all are. Who are we kidding? There are 32 teams that start this journey and there are two left. And we are fortunate enough to be one of them. It's awesome."

Awesome, but not an accident. Tomlin saw to that.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.