PITTSBURGH -- Bill Cowher has a reputation for being a strident, ultra-intense guy. But last week, three days before his Steelers faced the Detroit Lions in an all-or-nothing play-in game, the iron-jawed head coach was smiling and pleasant -- almost approaching jolly.
"I think the greatest thing in sports is the National Football League," Cowher said. "It's an honor to get into the tournament. Everyone starts zero-zero.
"We'll see how far we can ride this."
The Steelers looked a little sluggish Sunday, but prevailed over the Lions 35-21 at Heinz Field and earned the AFC's sixth and final playoff berth.
Last season, you might recall, the Steelers won 15 of 16 regular-season games but the playoff ride ended in the AFC championship game, a 41-27 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The Steelers won their last 14 games heading into the playoffs only to see their momentum cool quickly.
This season, as Cowher noted, they're coming from a different place.
The Steelers were 7-2 and cruising before they lost three straight games, to Baltimore in overtime, then to the Colts and Bengals. By returning to the basics, that is to say, running the ball and being able to stop the run, the Steelers finished the season with a four-game win streak. And while that was modest compared to last year's double-digit streak, in the context of this season's up-and-down NFL it constitutes a strong finish.
Consider: The Colts had a historic chance to run the table, but lost two of their last three contests. Having lost two straight, the Bengals limp into their playoff game with the Steelers. Even Seattle, which entered its final game with an 11-game winning streak, stumbled at Green Bay. There is the caveat, however, that Indy and Seattle started resting players after clinching home-field advantage in their respective conferences. The hottest teams in the league entering the playoffs are the Washington Redskins, winners of five straight, followed by the Steelers and Broncos, who each won their final four.
Jerome Bettis scored three touchdowns against Detroit and collected most of the headlines, but the Steelers' chances rest with Willie Parker, an undrafted rookie in 2004. Parker carried 26 times for 135 yards against the Lions and finished the season with 1,202 yards, the Steelers' most since "The Bus" ran for 1,341 in 2000.
When the Steelers effectively control the running game, they tend to win. Down the stretch, they have reinvented themselves in their own image.
During the three-game losing streak, the Steelers averaged 26 carries for 83.6 yards, while opponents ran the ball 32 times per game for an average of 111 yards. In the four victories since, the Steelers are averaging 41 carries for 185 yards, with opponents averaging 20 carries for 74.3 yards.
Cowher, who played linebacker for five years in the NFL, has always known the value of running the football. In the 14 seasons he has coached in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have rushed 7,363 times for 30,311 yards -- more than any other team in that span that began in 1992. It is not a coincidence the Steelers also have football's best record in that time -- 141-82-1 (.632).
Those are impressive numbers and help explain why Cowher is the league's longest-tenured coach. In a season when there already are seven coaching vacancies and more are expected, Cowher's longevity is even more remarkable.
The Steelers already have won this year at Paul Brown Stadium, a 27-13 victory on Oct. 23. Pittsburgh ran for 221 yards in that game, a season high. But the Bengals took control of the AFC North with a 38-31 win in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is 22-3 as a starter, threw three touchdown passes in that game but they were offset by three interceptions.
"We certainly have to play better than the last time we played them," Cowher said. "It's going to be a challenge for us."
History is working against the Steelers. In his 14 seasons, Cowher has never won a playoff game on the road. He is 0-3.
And then there is this: No sixth seed has ever made it to a conference final. It definitely is a major challenge for the Steelers, whose road would likely take them through Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver.
"Some people's paths are going to be a lot more difficult than others," Cowher said last week. "Ours for one. We're playing to live to fight another day, and that's the mentality we're going to have week in, week out."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.