- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

DENVER — Seven weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were in trouble. They had lost three straight games to sink to 7-5 and eighth place in the AFC race. Next up was a date with NFC North leader Chicago, and the Steelers knew one more loss could prove fatal to their playoff chances.

“That Monday after we lost to Cincinnati [38-31], we got together and said, ‘We can make a season of it or we can just pack it up and go home.’ ” linebacker Clark Haggans said. “We were at a crossroads. It was sink or swim, and everybody wanted to swim.”

The Steelers have done quite swimmingly since, winning seven straight, including the 34-17 domination of Denver in Sunday’s AFC Championship game that sent them into a Super Bowl XL matchup with NFC champion Seattle on Feb. 5 in Detroit.

“At 7-5, we knew the only way we could get in was as a wild card,” running back Jerome Bettis said. “Coach [Bill] Cowher sensed that everybody was a little bit nervous, and he brought us in and calmed everybody down [by saying], ‘Let’s just win one game and see what happens.’ ”

Bettis finished a nine-play, 73-yard drive that put the Steelers ahead of the Bears 14-3 at halftime en route to a 21-9 victory that pumped new life into their season.

“Understanding that every game at that point is going to be a playoff game really got us battle-tested,” Bettis said. “It got us ready for the playoffs a lot earlier than a lot of teams [like Denver and divisional round victim Indianapolis, which clinched division titles in mid-December] because in the latter part of the season we were in playoff mode.”

Playoff mode hasn’t usually been a positive for Cowher, the NFL’s longest-tenured coach after 14 seasons in Pittsburgh. Before this month, the Steelers were just 8-8 in postseason under Cowher, 1-4 in AFC title games (despite playing them all at home) and 0-3 on the road.

However, this year’s Steelers toppled the AFC’s top three seeds — the Broncos, Colts and Cincinnati Bengals — to become the first team since New England in 1985 to win three straight road playoff games and advance to the Super Bowl.

“We just took the scenic route,” linebacker Joey Porter said.

Receiver Hines Ward, one of 16 Steelers to have been a part of the 2001 and 2004 AFC title game losses to the Patriots at home, said the usually fiery Cowher has been less uptight this January, perhaps because — unlike last season, when Pittsburgh went into the playoffs at an NFL-best 15-1 — he and his team had nothing to lose.

“Last year everyone put overwhelming pressure on us,” Ward said. “I truly thought we were the better team [than the Patriots, but] we didn’t perform like we were supposed to. This year there were no expectations. We’re out there joking and laughing [in practice].”

It won’t be a laughing matter against the Seahawks, who beat Washington and Carolina by a combined 54-24 in the NFC playoffs and who are 13-0 since Week 4 with their stars playing the entire game.

But the Steelers won’t be intimidated, not after their defense held three of the seven highest-scoring teams to less than 20 points apiece during the AFC playoffs while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shone (49-for-72 for 680 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception) for an offense that racked up 86 points.

“If no one else believes in us, that’s fine with us,” said the 23-year-old Roethlisberger, who can surpass the Patriots’ Tom Brady as the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

And 10 years after losing his only previous Super Bowl to the star-studded Dallas Cowboys, Cowher finally has another shot at a title.

The only coach who waited longer to get back to the Super Bowl, Dick Vermeil, took a 14-year sabbatical. Cowher never has left the sideline.

“Coach has been criticized a lot over the years for not being able to win the big one, not being able to get back to the Super Bowl,” Bettis said. “We wanted to play for him and give him another crack at that elusive Super Bowl ring.”

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