Something interesting happened this year. I stopped writing about my team. Because the Patriots’ season (of redemption) was derailed — by Bernard Pollard or Kevin Faulk or karma itself — before it had a chance to get rolling, I simply couldn’t bring myself to reprise my role as a de facto Pats beat writer/columnist. It was that role that sprung me to the early success I had in this business (way back when I was chronicling a dynasty for the Fordham University publication, The Observer) and made me believe sportswriting was what I wanted to do.
So I tried something different. For the first time in a decade I watched football free of bias, hubris and emotion. I watched and rooted for the Patriots every week, but with nothing personal at stake. Merely as a fan of the game. At a Steelers bar no less.
It’s well documented how much animosity Pittsburgh fans harbor towards the Patriots. New England did twice blow through Heinz Field and thwart Steelers outfits (in 2001 and 2004) from reaching the Super Bowl.
As much as they may despise anyone associated with the Pats, I’ve always liked Pittsburgh. Envy its history and blue collar, hard-nosed style. Respect how its fan base embodies the grit and steel will of the franchise and city. And those Terrible Towels are pretty cool.
Naturally it was difficult — to say the least — to coexist with a crew that had undying hate for my team, that somehow knew and responded appropriately every time something bad happened in a Patriots game — even though the Pats were relegated to five or so TVs in an establishment boasting well over a hundred flat screens.
(For a bit of clarification, this bar is no ordinary sports bar, and I’m talking about the clientele. The average gentleman at “200 Fifth” is about two hundred and a fifth of another hundred pounds. You could field an NFL practice squad with the dudes who frequent this spot. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a handful of Pro Bowls among these guys. And the funny/scary thing is only the latter statement is hyperbole. But I digress.)
Since Patriots and Steelers games rarely coincided, I tended to get to the bar early, catch the Pats game and gravitate to the HD projection screen in the back that always played the Pittsburgh contests. Aside from a small clique of friendlies who knew and were relatively cool with my affiliations — yet still talked lots of smack — I acted largely as an impostor to the majority of the heads. Gotta look out for numero uno.
So there I was, just another tacit Pittsburgh supporter, plain clothes clad. A veritable Steeler Nation operative, rocking my fist when the good guys scored and shaking my head when they erred.
As much of an outsider as I was, over time I started to realize that the team I was faux following actually bore strong resemblance to the one I used to follow, back in The Observer days.
On a few occasions I have made reference to the fact that the 18-0 (and 18-1) Patriots simply weren’t comparable to the three-time champion Patriots. Were they prolific and dominant? Absolutely. But therein lay the problem. Their offensive supremacy covered up what was an aging defense that had seen its best days pass. More importantly, Brady and the offense rendered the defense a subsidiary part of the team for the majority of the season, and when it came time for the unit to step up, it was as if it suddenly couldn’t handle the pressure and stage it had once lived for.
Way back when, the Patriots defense anchored nine consecutive wins in January and February by exhibiting superior schemes, greater intellect, unrelenting toughness over sixty minutes and a knack for always making the handful of big plays and the one monstrous play necessary to move on and/or win a title. Brady, Brown and Vinatieri handled the rest.
I’ve got news for you, but no team — including the Patriots, who have gone a redoubtable 54-18 since their last title — has resembled those Patriots like this year’s Steelers.
The formula for their success has been eerily similar to New England’s circa 2003-04: ups and downs from an offense committed to the run, a defense that consistently keeps the team in games and forces momentum-changing turnovers in crunch time. A quarterback who always makes the most of a drive when he knows it’s his last. A team that finishes.
I’ve seen it happen too many times this year to be chalked up as coincidental. Against San Diego in Week 11. Versus Dallas in Week 14. In Baltimore the following week. And again in the AFC Championship two Sundays ago.
The defense has guys like Casey Hampton in the trenches, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on the outside, and Troy Polamalu in center field; guys that have shown time and again that in physical, taxing affairs they will not blink first. And when they hand the ball to their offense late and a drive must be executed, Ben Roethlisberger will lead it with calmness and precision, looking to Hines Ward when the going gets tough.
Simply put, the Steelers never panic. On occasion they don’t come out of the tunnel with their A-game, but their mental resolve is unwavering and their collective patience is a virtue, the reasons why they’ve come from behind multiple times against quality teams.
It was the “sixty minutes mantra” that typified New England during its run, and it’s the same primary tenet that has carried the Steelers to within sixty minutes of a record-breaking sixth Super Bowl title.
Just as the the Panthers and Eagles were exceptional and worthy opponents of the Patriots, so too are the Cardinals for Pittsburgh. One thing Arizona has benefited from this postseason is playing from ahead. Against Atlanta they were up 14-3 and 28-17. They thrashed Carolina. And in the NFC Championship it was 24-6 before the Eagles knew what hit them.
Kurt Warner-to-Larry Fitzgerald is the explanation for all those crooked scores before halftime. But the enabler was actually Edgerrin James, whose rushing outputs — while a modest 203 yards in three games — had opposing defenses thinking “run” in the back of their minds, which was all the old war horse and stud receiver needed.
The Steelers front seven is the best in football and allowed just 73 yards on the ground to Baltimore, the league’s second-ranked rushing offense. Arizona won’t reach 50 yards, meaning Polamalu will not be needed at the line of scrimmage, meaning under no circumstances will he allow any Cardinals receiver to get behind him for a quick-hit score. Arizona will find the end zone a few times but the Pittsburgh D will make them earn it. Nothing will come easy.
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh will use its rushing attack to dictate the pace of the game. Willie Parker is fresher and healthier than any back the revived Cardinals defense has faced this postseason, and is no stranger to running wild in the Super Bowl (who can forget his electrifying 75-yard touchdown sprint in Super Bowl XL?).
The Steelers will win the game because they can run the ball and stop the run. They’ll win the game because Ken Whisenhunt vs. Dick LeBeau is a wash. They’ll win the game because they don’t get down big. They’ll win the game because Roethlisberger has something to prove. They’ll win the game because they’ll see the Terrible Towels.
Above all, the Pittsburgh Steelers will win Super Bowl XLIII because their defense will not lose it.
Steelers 26 Cardinals 21
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