Teams cite better focus as impetus to road success
The Steelers and Panthers still have championship aspirations in part because of their tremendous success on the road this season.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On a gleaming (if slightly chilly) Wednesday, Bank of America Stadium seemed eerily quiet. The bronze, green-eyed panthers that mark the entrance snarled in a virtual vacuum, and the field, surrounded by 73,298 empty seats, stood empty.
The last home game here was Christmas Eve -- nearly a month ago -- which underlines just how remarkable the Carolina Panthers' current run has been.
The Panthers are headed to Sunday's NFC Championship Game -- their third in only 11 years as a franchise -- but they are trying to maintain their usual routine amid the pomp and circumstance. Toward that end, Carolina elected to fly the 2,700-plus miles to Seattle on Saturday, the traditional travel day.
"We'll leave a little earlier [Saturday] and practice out there," Panthers head coach John Fox explained. "We basically stay on East Coast time on that trip."
As it turns out, the Panthers -- and, not coincidentally, the Pittsburgh Steelers -- manage to stay on East Coast time all the time. Somehow, they keep the home fires burning even when they're on the road. For these two teams, there is no place like away.
|“||We love being on the road, baby. It got us to the AFC championship. Hopefully, it will keep us going. ”|
|—Steelers RB Willie Parker|
The Steelers, for the record, will navigate the 1,400 miles to Denver on Saturday.
Since the advent of the 12-team playoff format in 1990, only four teams have reached their conference championship game with two wins on the road (the 1995 Colts and 1996 Jaguars are the others). The Panthers rocked the Giants and the Bears; the Steelers took out the Bengals, then stunned the Colts in the surprise of the playoffs.
"We didn't really plan to go this way," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said earlier this week. "It's been twice I had home-field advantage, and we came up short both times. We're one game away from the Super Bowl. We're right back where we were last year."
But perhaps this time Denver is a better place for the Steelers, who lost two AFC Championship Games at home in four seasons. The change of venue, as irrational as it seems, might be good for Pittsburgh.
Over the last two seasons, Bill Cowher's Steelers are 14-4 in the comfortable confines of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. But they are even better on the road, a searing 15-3.
Fox's Panthers are a middling 8-8 at Bank of America Stadium. The road record? An inexplicable 12-6.
Really, it doesn't make any sense. Certainly, the Panthers and Steelers are good teams, but that doesn't begin to explain their success away from home.
That sets up a delicious collision in Sunday's conference title games. The Panthers and Steelers are an identical 8-2 in road games this year, while their hosts, Seattle and Denver, are both a perfect 9-0 at home.
Clearly, something has to give.
After the Panthers dusted the Bears 29-21 at Soldier Field, Fox was asked why his team is so successful on the road.
"I think it's just a mind-set," he told reporters. "I think we have a close team, a very together team, and they know that that's all they have when they go on the road."
Fox could have been speaking for the Steelers, too.
"In the playoffs, you're dealing with a hostile environment and the finality of where you are in the playoffs exists and you're the underdog," Cowher said before the Colts game. "We understand that going in. We're going to go in there and we're going to give it our best shot.
"We've been in this mode now, you lose, you go home. I'm not so sure it hasn't been that way for the last four or five weeks. We understand the level of desperation that we are going to have to play at. It's going to take our best football. We've got to be able to stay focused."
The Steelers lost at Baltimore in the second game of the 2004 season, then won 11 straight on the road before losing at the Ravens back on Nov. 20 in 2005. This represents the second-longest road winning streak in NFL history; only the San Francisco 49ers of 1988-90, with 18 straight wins in enemy territory, have done better.
After the Steelers' scintillating 21-18 victory at Indianapolis, Cowher actually suggested his team might be better off playing the AFC Championship Game on the road. He wasn't kidding.
Some local observers believe the Steelers got too comfortable playing those big games at home against the Patriots. The criticism seems accurate. The team exhibited a sense of urgency at Cincinnati and Indianapolis that was lacking in the 2001 and 2004 conference championships. Playing on the road seems to get this team more focused.
The funny thing? Cowher was 0-3 on the road in the playoffs going into the game against the Bengals. As it stands, the Steelers are the first No. 6 seed to reach the conference final. With wins in Denver and Seattle, respectively, Pittsburgh and Carolina would equal the 1985 New England Patriots, who won three straight road games to reach Super Bowl XX.
"We came in from the back door," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. "They wrote us off. We weren't supposed to be here, but we like our chances in Denver.
"It's not even the fact that we struggled at home. It's just the way we come in here right now. I think it makes us focus more as a team because they're counting us out. The whole world is counting us out."
Memo to Porter: There are one billion folks in India who have no idea who (or what) the Steelers are.
Still, his dire words give you a sense of the Steelers' mind-set. The Panthers, too, love to play the us-against-them card. There might be no coach in the NFL who circles the wagons quite like Fox.
"Everybody says, 'How can they go 11-5, how can they be playing in the championship game?'" wide receiver Ricky Proehl said. "You look at us on paper and you're like, 'They don't have anybody.' There's not many believers out there, but we have a lot of character guys that play together. We're as selfless as you can get."
Carolina was picked by some to be the NFC's entry in Super Bowl XL, but lost two of its first three games, the second a 27-24 decision at Miami. The Panthers rallied to win six straight games, three of them on the road. Despite losing its last two home games, Carolina managed to clinch a playoff berth with an impressive win at Atlanta.
When the Panthers flogged the Giants 23-0 in the wild-card round, media types cited the fact the home team was playing JV linebackers. A week later, with Brian Urlacher -- the league's defensive player of the year -- manning the middle, Carolina tore up Chicago's vaunted defense.
Thus, the Panthers tied the NFL's all-time record with four straight road playoff victories. They can make the record their own with a win at Seattle.
"It's just total focus, a business trip," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "I mean, if we lay an egg on Sunday, we have six months to do whatever we want to do. This doesn't happen often; to get in the playoffs is hard. You better cherish it and you better take advantage of it."
For the Steelers, Sunday's game at Denver represents the fifth game away from home in six weeks.
Bring it on, say the Steelers.
"We love being on the road, baby," running back Willie Parker said. "It got us to the AFC championship. Hopefully, it will keep us going."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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