- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

PITTSBURGH | Winning the Super Bowl three years ago didn’t erase one of the lingering questions about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Why can’t they win a championship game at home?

The Steelers of the 1970s thrived on playing title games at Three Rivers Stadium, losing to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins in 1972 before winning three AFC championships in three tries during the 1975-79 seasons.

If there were any sight that brought a chill to an opponent back then, it was the wave of those Terrible Towels during a Pittsburgh playoff game. The towels whirled when Terry Bradshaw went deep to John Stallworth. They whirled when Franco Harris ran off-tackle. They whirled when Joe Greene leveled a quarterback.

Then, during the 15 years when the Steelers didn’t host an AFC championship game, the magic disappeared.

When the Steelers began playing title games at home again, their field proved no advantage at all. The Steelers own the NFL’s best home-field record since the 1970 merger, yet they are only 1-4 in AFC championship games there since the 1994 season, all under former coach Bill Cowher.

The one conference championship they won at home in the past 29 seasons was something of an underachieving performance, a tight 20-16 win against Indianapolis in January 1996. Those Colts went 9-7 and weren’t expected to advance past the wild-card round, much less play for the AFC title. Pittsburgh went on to lose to Dallas 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX.

Five of these Steelers were around for AFC title game losses to New England during the 2001 (24-17) and 2004 (41-27) seasons.

“I’ve lost two of these at home. It’s not much fun,” defensive end Aaron Smith said. “They’re going to stay with me the rest of my life. I don’t care how many Super Bowls you win; you’re not going to forget those championships you lose.”

After losing to the Patriots four seasons ago despite going 15-1 in the regular season, the Steelers came back the following season to win three road games in three weeks and the Super Bowl against Seattle. Being on the road, removed from the repeated failures at home, almost seemed like an advantage.

The Steelers would have been on the road for Sunday night’s AFC championship game, too, if sixth-seeded Baltimore hadn’t upset No. 1 seed Tennessee 13-10 last weekend.

“I think everybody understands the magnitude of the game, but the young guys might have a hard time understanding what the game’s going to be like,” Smith said. “It’s going to be the most physical game you’ve ever played. You’re going to be spent - that’s what the young guys don’t understand.”

This will be the Steelers’ 14th AFC title game, matching the record held by the Raiders. Oakland was 1-2 against Pittsburgh when the teams met in AFC title games during the 1974, ‘75 and ‘76 seasons.

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