Steelers Must Prove Themselves Again
PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Steelers have never had a season like this, even during the days of Franco and Mean Joe. A 15-1 record. A 14-game winning streak. A star quarterback who still hasn't lost an NFL game.
Still, it's not nearly enough for a team that finally feels ready to win the prize that has eluded one of the NFL's most successful franchises for a quarter-century.
The Steelers take high expectations into Saturday's tricky divisional playoff game against the New York Jets, who weren't supposed to make it this far after losing three of four only to upset San Diego 20-17 in overtime last week.
For all their doubters, the Jets suspected they'd be back in Pittsburgh, believing the Steelers were more than fortunate to have escaped with a Jerome Bettis-led 17-6 victory Dec. 12.
Defensive end Shaun Ellis predicted a win if the Jets returned, saying, "They are a great team but, if we come back here, I really think we'll beat them."
The Jets' confident talk reflects what the Steelers are seeing and hearing: they are one of only four NFL teams in 26 years to go 15-1, but they're hardly everybody's pick to win the Super Bowl.
With the Colts-Patriots playoff rematch Sunday attracting so much attention, it almost seems the Steelers are the side attraction.
"I guess people aren't as interested in us as they are Peyton (Manning) vs. the Patriots," Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "People can not talk about us all the way to the Super Bowl."
Maybe there's hesitancy to view the Steelers as the Super Bowl favorite because no team has reached the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback, much less won one, as they are asking Ben Roethlisberger to do. Maybe it's because those consecutive midseason wins over the Patriots and Eagles were so long ago, it's forgotten how significant they seemed at the time.
Or maybe it's those three AFC championship game losses at home in the last 10 years, all when the Steelers were favored — and all with Bill Cowher as coach.
"We'll find out," Cowher said, asked if this is the best Steelers team since the franchise won four Super Bowls in six seasons from 1974-79. "We've put ourselves in a good position but we recognize now we're involved in one-game seasons."
The Jets pulled off a surprise by not being one and done in San Diego. Chad Pennington showed the arm strength and resiliency he lacked while throwing three interceptions in Pittsburgh last month, going 23 of 33 for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
Pennington missed practice Wednesday with the flu, but expects to be fine Saturday. He endured several weeks of under-the-microscope scrutiny after his poor play in Pittsburgh, leading to some verbal jousting with the media that quieted after the Chargers game.
"As far as proving anything to anyone, I quit doing that a long time ago," Pennington said. "There are always going to be critics and doubters. You've got to trust yourself and not second-guess yourself. When you start doing that, that's when you play hesitant and you look like you don't have arm strength."
Pennington hasn't convinced the Steelers he's recovered from the rotator cuff injury that sidelined him for three weeks. Linebacker James Farrior said, "I don't think his arm is that strong. I think the injury's bothering him a little bit."
Yet for all the questioning of Pennington's arm and Roethlisberger's lack of experience, the winner will probably have the stronger ground game. Pittsburgh was No. 2 and New York No. 3 in rushing, and each has one of the NFL's top five career rushers: the Jets' No. 4 Curtis Martin and the Steelers' No. 5 Bettis.
Last month, Pittsburgh's league-leading defense held Martin, the NFL rushing champion, to 72 yards on 24 carries and backup LaMont Jordan to 10 yards on three carries, buying time for the offense before Bettis threw for a touchdown and ran for another in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers may get a boost from wide receiver Plaxico Burress' return after he missed five of six games with a sore hamstring. But the Jets also may be without defensive end John Abraham (sore knee) and his 9 1/2 sacks for a sixth consecutive game.
Jets coach Herman Edwards dismisses talk the pressure's all on Pittsburgh and his team is enjoying a gift game it never expected to play.
"There's always pressure on this football team because I'm going to create it," he said. "You're playing with house money? That's a bunch of talk. This is the playoffs. There is pressure."