- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

DENVER.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the best team in the NFL last season — in November. Who played any better than Pittsburgh did when it pounded the Patriots (34-20) and Eagles (27-3), the two Super Bowl finalists, on consecutive Sundays? By January, though, super rookie Ben Roethlisberger looked like he was ready for Spring Break, and the defense wasn’t nearly as daunting. Despite the Steelers’ snazzy 15-1 record, 2004 wound up being somebody else’s year.

Bill Cowher didn’t make the same mistake — if, indeed, you can call it that — this season. In November, the Steelers weren’t the best team in the league. In fact, there was some doubt, after they dropped three straight and began jostling for a wild-card berth, that they’d even make the playoffs.

But Pittsburgh finally seems to have gotten This Timing Thing down because ever since, it has been a team possessed: seven straight victories, five on the road, the last three against the top three seeds in the AFC — Cincinnati (31-17), Indianapolis (21-18) and yesterday, in the conference title game, Denver (34-17), whose mile-high lair always has been one of the toughest places to win.

The Steelers didn’t just beat the Broncos, either. They horsewhipped them, bolting to a 24-3 lead and scoring on every first-half possession. There’s one more game to go, of course, but you can make a strong case that the Rooneymen are the best team in the NFL right now — or as Bill Cowher put it, “playing our best football at the right time of year.”

The Steelers are also probably — how shall I put this? — the most fortunate team in the playoffs, which never hurts. They didn’t have to contend with Bengals Pro Bowler Carson Palmer, who blew out his knee in the first few plays. The Colts’ Mike Vanderjagt, one of the most reliable kickers in pro football history, was nice enough to butcher a 46-yard field goal try as the game ended. Then there were yesterday’s many strokes of luck — the interceptions that Champ Bailey, Dominique Foxworth and John Lynch couldn’t quite latch onto, the fumble by Willie Parker that bounced out of bounds (and the other fumble by Parker that was reversed by replay).

“That’s not how you want to start the game — with a pick for a touchdown [by Bailey],” said Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward. “I grabbed his arm” to avert disaster … and then, miraculously, gathered in the tipped ball for a first down that helped set up a field goal.

The Broncos, who benefited from five New England turnovers in their dethroning of the Patriots last week, received no such charity in this game. It made life infinitely more difficult for Jake Plummer and Co. So did the Steelers’ mostly sterling special teams play; Denver rarely got the short field.

Even when the Broncos did, though — following Charlie Adams’ 47-yard kickoff return to the Pittsburgh 43 in the fourth quarter, for instance — the Steelers’ defense squelched them. Larry Foote did the honors that time by picking off a Plummer pass; on other occasions, the pass rush, headed by blitzer supreme Joey Porter, sabotaged Mike Shanahan’s schemes.

But what the game ultimately came down to was this: Pittsburgh was peaking, and Denver wasn’t.

For Cowher, it was the sweetest of victories. After all, his first five trips to the AFC final hadn’t gone so well — one win, four losses, all at home. Maybe the Steelers just needed to get out of Pittsburgh … to air out the house or something. Never in the Cowher era have they played with more self-assurance.

Jerome Bettis, headed to his first Super Bowl in what’s likely his last season, offered the following explanation: “Last year we went 15-1, and there were a lot of expectations. We know what it feels like to have that pressure on you [like the Colts and Broncos had]. We just came out and said, ‘Hey, it’s us against everybody.’ Nobody expects us to win.’”

Having a quarterback blossom the way Roethlisberger has also makes a big difference. The Steelers’ struggles in the playoffs a year ago could be directly tied to Ben’s insistence on “trying to win the game by himself,” Bettis said. “He’s a different quarterback now. He has an understanding of what he needs to do [to win]. He’s amazing. He’s definitely our leader.”

Going into the playoffs, the conventional wisdom about the Steelers was that if you forced them to throw, they couldn’t win. Roethlisberger and his offensive mates “took offense at that,” Ben said. “And we’ve shown in the last three games that it’s not true.”

Pittsburgh has scored 11 touchdowns in this postseason; Roethlisberger’s right arm has been responsible for seven of them. Yesterday the breakdown was: 275 yards passing, 90 rushing (with Bettis’ 39 the most by any ball carrier). The Steelers’ offense is a two-headed monster now — as the NFC champion will soon discover.

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