Stairway to Seven: Steelers Advance to 8th Super Bowl

[AFC Championship photos by Al Bello/Getty Images]

Nobody asked me, but…

*It’s great to be from Pittsburgh, and it’s great to be a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I only wish my friends from trophy-starved cities like Cleveland, Buffalo and Seattle were able to experience the kind of championship excitement and jubilation Pittsburgh fans are now expecting to be treated to every couple of years.

*Spending this incredibly cold winter in Portland, Me., where we’ve had over thirty inches of snow so far and apparently have another foot of the white stuff on the way this week, it was heartwarming to watch my hometown Pittsburgh Steelers win the AFC championship over the trash-talking New York Jets yesterday, 24-19. For the first time in my 13-month-old daughter Sidney’s life, I was able to look her in the eyes and elatedly utter the magical words, “Pittsburgh’s going to the Super Bowl.”

*The Steelers’ performance on both sides of the ball in the first half last night was about as dominant as it gets in the NFL. Led by underrated running back Rashard Mendenhall’s gutsy runs and much-maligned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s timely passes, the Steelers held the ball for almost ten minutes to open the game and then took a 24-0 lead when cornerback Ike Taylor sack-stripped the Jets’ Mark Sanchez and nickel back William Gay ran the ball back for a TD. Combined with a solid running back and the most clutch QB around, the sheer ferocity of the Steelers’ dynamic defense, even with a noticeably slowed Troy Polamalu, made me believe Pittsburgh—at their best—can beat anyone. But to beat Green Bay—whose quarterback and defense are both superior to the Jets’—it’ll take two halves of the kind of intensity and focus the Steelers showed in the first half last night.

*Along with a lot of other Steelers fans, I called for Roethlisberger to but cut in the offseason—especially after 2009 Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes was traded in the midst of substance abuse issues. Roethlisberger has not faced criminal charges, but it’s clear that his behavior both in a hotel room in Tahoe two years ago and in a bathroom in a Georgia cowboy bar last winter was disgusting. By all accounts, Roethlisberger’s personality has changed for the better since weathering the two sexual assault charges, but I believe that he took advantage of two different young women and acted like a pig, criminal charges or not. And although he has reportedly become a better teammate, more active in the community and more cooperative with the media, he has not admitted he did anything wrong besides put the historically reputable Steelers in a negative light.

But perhaps moving forward, quietly growing up off the field and triumphantly improving his play on the field—instead of graphically describing the erroneous behavior which earned Roethlisberger a 4-game suspension to open this season isn’t necessary—is adequate. Sadly, it’s also clear that I’m obviously in the same boat as a lot of hardcore Steelers fans who would have a harder time forgiving Big Ben’s discretions if he hadn’t taken our beloved team to yet another Super Bowl this season. I only hope Roethlisberger is a little more outspokenly apologetic during Media Day leading up to the Super Bowl than he has been with Pittsburgh journalists, because the national and international media is surely going to pepper him with tougher questions that what he’s been tossed by Pittsburgh local news and Steelers beat writers. Who knows, maybe new revelations surrounding Roethlisbeger’s sexual assault mess will come to light on Media Day and paint Super Bowl XLV in an unexpected light. We’ll see.

*On that note, let’s take a few moments to appreciate the jaw-dropping job young Steelers head-coach Mike Tomlin, in just his fourth season as a head coach in the NFL, has done this season, with so many hurdles to overcome. First, his starting quarterback—a two-time Super Bowl champion, Pittsburgh’s single most irreplaceable player and the face of the franchise—gets accused of sexual assault and assailed by both the national media and most Steelers fans. Then the team’s most dangerous offensive threat, receiver Santonio Holmes, tweeted vulgarities and glorified drug use before being suspended for the first few games of the season for substance abuse. Roethlisberger ended up not being charged with a crime, but the NFL suspended him four games for his lewd behavior. Holmes was traded to the Jets for a low-round draft pick. Tomlin and the Steelers were forced to sign aging quarterback Byron Leftwich—a big, slow guy with a strong arms but no mobility—and he was injured before the season even began, forcing the Steelers’ to start third-string QB Dennis Dixon—a tall, fast guy with mucho mobility but zero throwing skills. Dixon was promptly injured as well, and by the third game of the season Pittsburgh was starting fourth-string quarterback, and Pittsburgh native, Charlie Batch.

Amazingly, when Roethlisberger returned from his four-game suspension the Steelers were 3-1 and poised for another Super Bowl run, thanks mostly to a dominant defense and Mendenhall’s solid running. But don’t discount coach Tomlin’s steady leadership, which is always highlighted by his assurance that anyone who puts on the Steeler uniform must live up to the same high standard, whether that man is a two-time Super Bowl champion or a fourth-string nobody. Bill Belichick will no doubt win coach of the year for the 2010 season, but with the Steelers’ current playoff run as new perspective, Tomlin should be the winner.

*Living in New England and listening to sports radio coming out of Boston and Portland, it’s obvious how much the media around here hates the Steelers, and particularly Roethlisberger. The Patriots fans I’ve befriended in New England don’t actively like the Steelers, but they all respect Roethlisberger’s toughness and his penchant for winning the biggest games with brilliant improvisation in the face of intense pressure, both from the sky-high expectations of Steelers fans and from opposing defenses. The New England media however, never seems to get tired of pointing out that “Roethlisberger will never be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning” because of his relatively poor statistics. Most of the sports DJs in New England go as far as claiming that Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers are all also better than Roethlisberger. This is nonsense.

Rodgers is about to play in his first Super Bowl and can begin to prove himself in two weeks. Rivers has never been to the Super Bowl. Brees had a huge game in last year’s Super Bowl and is a one-time champion with a legacy in the works. Peyton Manning has crazy regular-season statistics and a losing record in the playoffs and is 1-for-2 in Super Bowl appearances. Tom Brady, as good or better than Manning the regular season and 3-for-4 in Super Bowl appearances, has lost three straight playoff games and looked like a mediocre competitor two weeks ago against the Jets, who sacked him five times and very clearly flustered the former champ.

Ben Roethlisberger will never have the statistics of a Manning, Brady, Brees or Rivers, but the Steelers have almost never built their offense around feverish passing games, nor has Roethlisberger enjoyed the kind of offensive-line protection that almost always Manning and Brady to sit comfortably in the pocket and make slick throws without worrying about getting literally pounded into the ground by opposing linebackers. Brady and Manning are known to perform poorly, and usually lose, when they get sacked a few times or even have to spend an afternoon scrambling away from serious pressure. Roethlisberger—with broken nose, a lame foot and an offensive line so banged up it resembles a MASH unit—ran for his life every Sunday in order to lead the Steelers to a 12-4 record in the postseason. Last night, Roethlisberger was repeatedly hit by the Jets’ defense and injured his thigh early in the game—just before running for 13 yards on a huge third-down conversion and later running for a touchdown. His starting center was chased from the game with a lower-leg injury on the first drive, and he was still able to convert first downs on crucial plays to keep the ball away from the Jets and run the clock out for a Steelers victory. Sorry, Patriots and Colts fans: both Manning and Brady would’ve been yelling at themselves and/or their teammates in the face of such adversity, throwing errant passes and being dragged down by defenders, and the Jets would’ve prevailed.

Now, I’m not suggesting Roethlisberger is a better athlete or a more intelligent human being than any of the aforementioned NFL quarterbacks. I’m just saying he’s the only guy who can make big plays out of the pocket like he’s repeatedly forced to do, and he’s the only guy I want as the quarterback on my favorite team in a big game.

Oh yeah, and Roethlisberger is 10-2 in the playoffs. Better than Manning, Brady and anyone not named Bart Starr.

Regardless of who’s “better” or what current star you’d prefer as your quarterback in big games, what’s interesting to me is the way the New England media (and some New England sports fans) react to the success, especially the repeated success, of their rivals—most notably the Steelers and Yankees. Now, just as Jets linebacker Bart Scott thinks Tom Brady is an “asshole,” I don’t like Brady or Peyton Manning. I think they whine and lose their composure—not to mention the game—when they’re forced to scramble or even get knocked down a few times. Plus, Manning is too ubiquitous in TV commercials and Brady is a pretty-boy with girlish hair and cheesy model girlfriends. But I don’t think either of those admittedly elite quarterbacks suck. They’re incredible athletes who have been able to sustain serious success in their sports for a decade or more, although Manning has typically choked in the postseason and Brady has now choked in the postseason for six years running.

Asked how many Super Bowls Brady, 34, will add to the three he’s already won before his career is over, an ever-present Boston sports DJ said this morning, “One or two.” Asked how many Super Bowl victories Roethlisberger, 28, will add to the two he’s already won, the DJ said, “None. He’ll lose against Green Bay and then spend the next ten years losing.”

Whatever your opinion of Roethlisberger, it takes a dolt of a homer such as that guy to think one of the most winning quarterbacks in NFL history is a loser.

*Steelers All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, the most dynamic defensive player of his generation of football players and the probably 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is not himself in these playoffs. He has an ankle injury that forced him to miss a couple games at the end of the season, and while he intercepted Colt McCoy in the regular season’s final game, Polamalu has not made one of his stereotypical game-changing plays since. He is playing smart, effective football at an above-average level, but he doesn’t seem as able to burst in front of receivers for interceptions, dive for errant passes or jump over the offensive line for a terrific sack. When he makes those kind of plays—and he did all year—Polamalu rivals Roethlisberger for the title of Most Important Steeler and makes the rest of the defense better. Two more weeks of rest before the Super Bowl could help Polamalu return to form.

*The Steelers beat second-year Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez by frantically knocking his passes down at the line of scrimmage, disrupting his receivers’ patterns and—most importantly—knocking him down and pressuring him to scramble outside of the pocket. Sanchez simply doesn’t make big plays when forced to improvise in the kind of hectic situations where Roethlisberger thrives. Only one quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl in his second year, and that’s Roethlisberger, who with a win over the Jets yesterday has a chance to win an unprecedented three in his first seven years as a pro. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, however, is a far better thrower and scrambler than Sanchez and will give the Steelers’ defense much more trouble. In the AFC championship, the Steelers—ferocious, focused and able to flawlessly execute under pressure—were able to put together one absolutely dominant first half against the Jets, play the second half as if their minds were already on heading to Dallas for the Super Bowl, and still win despite the Jets outscoring Pittsburgh 16-0 in the last 30 minutes. That won’t cut it against Green Bay, whose defense is full of Pro Bowls and whose quarterback will take advantage of any mistake by the Steelers defense.

*The possibly season-ending injury to Steelers rookie Pro-Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey could very well end Pittsburgh’s chances of winning a record-extending seventh Super Bowl title in two weeks. He told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that in college he suffered a similar ankle injury in college and recovered in just one week; he’s got two. The Steelers’ offensive line was already plagued by injuries and lack of talent, and Pouncey is by far the best member of that line. His replacement last night, Doug Legursky, fumbled snaps and at times looked overwhelmed by the Jets’ defenders. That won’t cut it against Green Bay’s more powerful defense, which will be harder for Rashard Mendenhall, who had 122 yards and a TD against New York, to run on with much success.

I will say, however, that it could be telling that the Chicago Bears were never really out of the game yesterday against the Packers despite not having an elite-level quarterback to help them compete. Playing in his first-ever playoff game, Jay Cutler, who always seems to find a way to make a dumb play to lose a big game, was having minimal success against the Packers before he was injured. Third-string Bears QB Caleb Hanie—playing in his first postseason game as well—actually had considerable success against the Packers’ defense, and brought Chicago to within one score of tying the game. Whether the soft play of the Packers’ secondary in the second half yesterday was a testament to their abilities at crucial moments or simply a lazy way of getting the ball back, we’ll find out in the Super Bowl. The Steelers are far more talented and far more experienced at both quarterback and receiver than the Bears.

With Pouncey in, Super Bowl XLV will be a truly great game that I think the Steelers will win by a field goal. Without him, I think the Steelers lose by a field goal.

3 thoughts on “Stairway to Seven: Steelers Advance to 8th Super Bowl

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