PITTSBURGH -- For the last seven weeks the Pittsburgh Steelers have waded through a minefield that was the league's most torturous schedule. One week it was New England. The next, Dallas. Then Baltimore and Tennessee and ...
I think you get the idea.
"There was a lot of talk about what the Steelers were going to do with the schedule," linebacker James Farrior said. "We had a long road."
That road is about to end ... but not before it gets a little steeper. Not only are the Steelers going to Super Bowl XLIII, they're up against the toughest, most difficult opponent on this season's itinerary.
I'm not talking about Arizona. I'm talking about Ken Whisenhunt.
When Pittsburgh last won a Super Bowl three years ago, Whisenhunt was the team's offensive coordinator. He devised the trick plays that beat Cincinnati and Seattle in the playoffs, and he returned the power rushing game to a team and a city that once lived by it.
"'Wiz' is a smart coach," running back Willie Parker said after Pittsburgh's 23-14 defeat of Baltimore in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. "I love him and I love him to death. I respect him as a coach and as a person. He played a big role in my development."
He played a big role in the development of this Steelers team, too, especially with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But now he stands in the way of a sixth Pittsburgh title -- and good luck.
|Mike Tomlin and Big Ben earn a trip to face ex-Pittsburgh assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. (US Presswire)|
Not only is this Steelers team better, this Steelers team is and has been the best team in the NFL for weeks. I don't care that Tennessee knocked them off in late December; Pittsburgh has what it takes to end Arizona's improbable run, and you saw why against Baltimore.
First, let's start with Pittsburgh's defense. There is none better. The Steelers didn't frustrate the Ravens as much as they choked them, never allowing a drive longer than 51 yards and seven times holding them to possessions that gained no more than 9 each.
They intercepted Joe Flacco once, twice, three times, and returned one of them for the game-clinching touchdown. And they did that against a quarterback -- Flacco, please step forward -- who hadn't committed a turnover in the playoffs until playing the Steelers.
Hey, it happens.
"It's the No. 1 defense in the world," Roethlisberger said. "And it's ranked that way for a reason."
Flacco hadn't been sacked in the playoffs, either. Not until Sunday. But then he was dumped three times, and pay attention, Kurt Warner. Consider yourself warned.
"Without a doubt," said safety Troy Polamalu, "this is the best defense that I've ever played on, but we'll see what happens the next game. I think that's going to solidify how good we are."
I don't know about you, but that sure sounds like confidence to me.
Now let's move to Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense. It doesn't feature the pyrotechnics of Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and the league's second-ranked passing games, but it is effective -- so effective that it managed to overcome one of the NFL's toughest defenses without an injured Hines Ward for three quarters.
But that's not all. Parker didn't run for much, wide receiver Nate Washington had to play a new position and Limas Sweed dropped a sure touchdown pass. Even Roethlisberger was iffy after taking a hit in the back late in the first quarter, with the club warming up backup Byron Leftwich.
But he never bowed out, and the Steelers responded as they responded all season -- making big plays when big plays were necessary. Remember the November victory against San Diego? It was a last-minute drive that clinched it. Same thing happened in Baltimore the following month.
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The Steelers knocked off Dallas and Jacksonville, too, with last-minute pushes, and after awhile you get the idea that there is something special going on here; that this is a team that knows how to deliver knockout punches.
"We're a team," said Roethlisberger, who quarterbacked the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL. "There's not offense. There's not defense. There isn't special teams. We're one. We're a band of brothers, and we want to fight for each other. We won't let anything come between us. No adversity. Nothing."
That takes me to the last element, which is the team's head coach. Two years ago Mike Tomlin was a defensive coordinator in Minnesota. Then he took over the Steelers after Bill Cowher stepped down and Whisenhunt moved on to Arizona.
At the time, there was a feeling that Steelers assistant Russ Grimm would get the job, but that didn't happen. Tomlin did, Grimm followed Whisenhunt to Arizona and now all of them converge on Tampa.
"The Rooneys have been doing this for a long time," Ward said. "Whomever they bring in is going to be very qualified. That's why they're the greatest owners in this league.
"So I never worry about who's going to be coaching. In two years as a head coach, (Tomlin) the first year led us to the playoffs and the second year led to the Super Bowl. That speaks volumes as a head coach."
The same goes for Whisenhunt and what he's done in Arizona. The first year he pulls the Cardinals to .500; the second he hauls them to a Super Bowl. But not just any Super Bowl. A Super Bowl against his former employer and his former players.
"It's going to be weird," Ward said.
No, it's not because the Steelers are where they should be. They're in the NFL title game because there is no one out there who is better, and, yes, that includes Arizona. Maybe Whisenhunt and his players produce another surprise, but I can't see it ... and I can't see it because these Steelers have too much for their ex-coach to beat them.
Offense. Defense. Special teams. Roethlisberger is right. It's a band of brothers who gang up on the next opponent, and go ahead and consult the Ravens. Half their losses this season were to Pittsburgh.
"We've got miles to go before we sleep," said Tomlin, quoting Robert Frost. "We're excited about meeting those challenges ... This is not my story. It's the story of the 2008 Steelers."
And it is to be continued.