Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Denver Broncos, who have caused more sleepless nights for Bill Cowher than any other team, stand between the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach and his dream yet again.

Cowher has had trouble with Denver since he was an assistant to Marty Schottenheimer with Cleveland and Kansas City. His 2-10 record as a coach and assistant against Denver includes AFC Championship game losses after the 1986 (“The Drive”) and 1987 (“The Fumble”) seasons.

And one of Cowher’s four championship game losses with Pittsburgh came to Denver after the 1997 season.

Today’s AFC Championship game against the Broncos will be different, however. All five of the Steelers’ previous conference title games under Cowher had been at home, and Pittsburgh isn’t favored, not even after shutting down the high-powered offenses of division winners Cincinnati and Indianapolis the past two weeks.

“No team has ever been where we are,” said Cowher, whose team is the first No.6 seed to reach this stage. “That’s not going to discourage us. We certainly aren’t going to let history dictate our journey.

“As I told the players, ‘Your journey can make history.’ That’s the kind of mind-set that we have.”

That journey will take them to Invesco Field, where the AFC West champion Broncos have an 11-game winning streak. That includes their first playoff game Jan. 14, when they dethroned two-time defending champion New England 27-13.

“If we play our game, do what we’re capable of doing, there’s nobody that can beat us,” said Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, whose 100-yard interception return cemented the triumph against the Patriots.

The Broncos are at home in the mile-high air, but their game, like that of the Steelers, is definitely ground-based. Pittsburgh was fifth in rushing and first in run defense. Denver was second in both rushing and rushing defense.

Both teams have similar backfield tandems of quick young players (Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker and Denver’s Tatum Bell) and physical veterans (Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis and Denver’s Mike Anderson). So unlike last week, when he taunted the favored Colts by calling them soft, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter is respectful of the Broncos.

“They play aggressive,” said Porter, leader of an attacking defense that sacked Peyton Manning five times last Sunday. “They run the ball. … They play physical on defense. They’re a very, very good team.”

After sidelining Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer and embarrassing Manning, the Steelers aren’t going to be intimidated by Jake Plummer, even if the Broncos’ mobile quarterback is having his best year as a pro.

“It always starts with us stopping the run and putting the game in the quarterback’s hand,” Porter said.

Last week’s victory was just the second in the postseason for the nine-year veteran Plummer. That’s one fewer than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, the top-rated quarterback after Manning and Palmer this season, has produced in just two seasons.

“He’s just poised,” Broncos defensive tackle Gerard Warren said of the 23-year-old Roethlisberger, who is on the verge of being the youngest quarterback other than the legendary Dan Marino to start a Super Bowl. “He knows how to manage the game.”

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who turned down an offer to be Cowher’s first offensive coordinator 14 years ago this month, certainly knows how to manage big-game situations. Shanahan is 4-0 in conference title games and Super Bowls, winning it all in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Of course, all those victories came with Hall of Famer John Elway at quarterback.

It took seven years, but Shanahan finally has won a playoff game without Elway. Today, Cowher, the only active coach other than Schottenheimer with 120 victories but no ring, will try to win his first AFC title in a decade and take a big step toward exorcising the “can’t win the big one” demons that have plagued him and his mentor.

“You’re in this business to win a championship,” Cowher said. “I think the longer you stay in it, the greater that drive becomes. There’s no question … that it’s a void.”

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