Road-tested Steelers cruise into Motown
DENVER -- As the final meaningless minutes ticked away, Jerome Bettis, wearing the commemorative conference championship cap he long has coveted, walked along the Steelers' sideline and yelled to everyone and to no one in particular, "We're going home! We're going home!" Home as in Detroit, Bettis' hometown, and the home of Super Bowl XL.
The Super Bowl will feel like a home game, given the way Pittsburgh fans travel and the cities' proximity to each other. Officially, Ford Field is a neutral site. But perhaps it's better that the Steelers approach it as another away game. Seems the Steelers are most at home on the road.
Sunday the Steelers completed the most remarkable, if not the most impressive, three-game postseason run of the Super Bowl era with a 34-17 beating of the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High. Consider: In becoming just the second team to win three road games en route to the Super Bowl and the lowest seed (sixth) to win a conference title, Pittsburgh defeated the AFC's No. 3 (Cincinnati), No. 1 (Indianapolis) and No. 2 seeds, teams that combined to compile an overall regular-season record of 38-10. Including Denver's win over New England last week, the Steelers' last two opponents had a combined 16-1 home mark this year.
By comparison, the 1985 Patriots, the only other team to win three road playoff games, beat the fourth-seeded Jets, the top-seeded Raiders and the second-seeded Dolphins, whose aggregate regular-season record was 35-13. So in taking the literal road to Super Bowl XL, the Steelers traveled a slightly tougher path.
It's hard to win a road game in the NFL. It's even harder to win a road game in the playoffs. And then to win in the RCA Dome and in the altitude of the Rockies? In a word, damn. The Colts had won 21 of their last 26, the Broncos 21 of 25 at home, and Cincinnati was jacked up because it was hosting its first playoff game in 15 years.
And to think, exactly one year ago Monday, the Steelers lost a conference-title game at home for the fourth time (and second time against Bill Belichick's Patriots) against one victory under head coach Bill Cowher in five home AFC title games. That one win came a decade ago against Indianapolis. In 13 seasons before this one, nine of which ended in the playoffs, Cowher had not coached the Steelers to a road playoff victory.
Now he's done it three times.
These Steelers have no peer in league history in terms of climbing the rough side of the mountain.
"It was probably more gratifying going through it this way," receiver Hines Ward said. "Nothing was ever given to us. We earned it."
Pittsburgh didn't earn its spot in the tournament until Week 17, with a win over, coincidentally, Detroit. The Steelers, 7-5 after dropping three in a row from Nov. 20 to Dec. 4, had to sweep their last four, including games at streaking Minnesota and at rival Cleveland, in order to avoid missing the playoffs one year after becoming the first AFC team to go 15-1. "When it's do-or-die for us, this team gets down to the nitty-gritty," second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
So while the playoffs didn't officially begin until two weekends ago, the Steelers have been in win-or-go-home mode for a month and a half. For that reason, they didn't have to turn on the intensity once the playoffs got under way. That probably helped. The Steelers entered the postseason with perhaps a different mind-set than in past years.
"We had different circumstances," Bettis replied when asked if Cowher, labeled a choker just last year after dropping to 1-4 in AFC title games and 8-9 overall in the playoffs, had coached any differently this postseason. "At 7-5, understanding that every game at that point is going to be a playoff game got us battle-tested, ready for the playoffs, a lot earlier, because we turned it on in the latter part of the season. We were in playoff mode."
By the time the real playoffs rolled around, Pittsburgh was in a state of what we'll call "relaxed focus." The Steelers were locked in, but they didn't tighten up. They've played with a "we're-not-supposed-to-be-here-anyway" calm the past three weeks. In the postseason, Pittsburgh has committed 16 penalties and two turnovers versus 20 and six for the opposition.
Roethlisberger, John Elway for a day on Sunday, has thrown seven touchdown passes to only one pick.
The Steelers had to rally from two 10-point deficits at Cincinnati, but in the past two weeks they've managed to take the home crowd out of the game early, jumping out to leads of 14-0 and 10-0.
Yes, the Steelers were quite comfortable playing the role of underdog this year, whereas they almost always succumbed to the weight of great expectations in previous postseasons.
Cowher set the tone.
"They say a lot of coaches', you know, butt holes get real tight [around playoff time]," Ward said. "But us, we're out there joking and laughing. Maybe that's the difference, we were loose. ... We were 15-1 last year. Everybody thought -- I truly thought -- we had the better team last year. This year, no expectations. We were the sixth seed. No one expected much out of us. To go on the road to Cincy, then go to Indy, they said, 'There's no way the Steelers can do it three weeks in a row.' But we did it today. There was more pressure on them [the Broncos] than us."
The "no-one-believed-in-us-but-us" cliché is a tired one, but the Steelers can say so honestly.
"We had nothing to lose," said Roethlisberger, who doesn't lose often -- he's 25-4 as a starter in two seasons. "Everyone expected us to lose the first game. Everyone expected us to lose the second game. Everyone expected us to lose this game. We had each other's back the whole way. Sometimes that's all you want is each other."
After a decade of coming close, Cowher finally gets a second crack at the whole thing. He should have tried this long-road thing a long time ago.
"The focus maybe has been greater, maybe the sense of urgency," said Cowher, whose Steelers are 16-3 away from Pittsburgh the last two years. "At home, you think you're going to have it because of the crowd. We kind of looked at that as a challenge. We've been pretty much underdogs in every game that we've been in, and these guys relish that position."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.