May 16, 2012
May 6, 2012
Tight end Heath Miller was lying motionless on the ground. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing with a broken nose. And the Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the division-leading Baltimore Ravens by seven on the road late in the third quarter.
Jameel McClain's brutal hit on Miller went unflagged, just like Haloti Ngata's blow to Roethlisberger's face earlier in the game. And these officiating oversights came during a season in which Steelers linebacker James Harrison had already been slapped with $125,000 in fines for illegal hits, raising the ire of Steelers coaches, players and management.
In other words, the excuses were there for the taking, and it would have been easy for Pittsburgh to fold.
Instead, the Steelers responded with characteristic defiance. After Miller woozily walked off the field, Roethlisberger led the Steelers into the Baltimore red zone. Scott Suisham's field goal brought Pittsburgh within four. And late in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens looking to run out the clock, Troy Polamalu made the play of the NFL season, stripping Joe Flacco of the ball, setting up the winning score, and effectively paving the Steelers' road to the Super Bowl.
It was the defining win in a season that started inauspiciously with Roethlisberger's off-field turmoil and included numerous on-the-field gut-checks. Like most Pittsburgh Steelers wins, it was ugly.
And in an era when many fans learn football strategy via their video game consoles, and the media salivates over aesthetically pleasing pass-heavy offenses, ugly wins are often mistaken for good fortune. Frankly, it's tough to understand how a team with a morally questionable husky quarterback, a patchwork offensive line, a band of raw receivers and a simplistic offensive philosophy can win so consistently.
ESPN's Bill Simmons chalked it up to luck last week before he picked against the Steelers in the AFC Championship:
"If I'm a Pitt fan, I'm looking at our recent stretch of playoff games and noticing an ongoing theme - getting lucky at the right time over and over again. Pitt-Indy in 2005, Pitt-Balt last week, Pitt-Balt in 2008, Zona-Pitt in 2008."
Now, there's a fine line between success and failure in the modern day NFL. Breaks and upsets happen, of course. However, in a league defined by parity, they simply can't happen consistently. Just look at how far the New York Giants have gone since that magical Super Bowl-winning drive three years ago.
Perennial winners like Pittsburgh and the New England Patriots (during their championship years) call on their experience, talent and mental fortitude to determine their own fate and win close games.
In 48 wins in three Super Bowl winning seasons, the Patriots won 20 games by seven points or less. Six of their nine playoff wins during that stretch were within the same margin. The Steelers have won 44 games in their two Super Bowl winning seasons and this season, 17 of which were within seven points or less. Four of their nine playoff wins were within seven points or less as well.
No, there's nothing lucky about the Steelers' success over the past six seasons. In 2005, then offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt out-schemed Indianapolis, jarring the Colts defense with a pass-heavy opening scoring drive that set the tone for the rest of the game. The defense broke down Joe Flacco mentally in the AFC Championship two years ago and the divisional round two weeks ago. And, of course, Roethlisberger led one of the great drives in Super Bowl history to beat Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII.
Anchored by strong ownership and imbued with the character of a city that wears the chip on its shoulder with unabashed pride, the Steelers have a defiant, rough persona - a persona that allows them to win the games prognosticators say they shouldn't.
All of this was on display that December night in Baltimore as the Steelers responded with more grit and will than most Super Bowl champions are ever required to muster.
That was the day close observers of this team knew they were going to the Super Bowl. And judging by the last half-decade, odds are they'll win next week in Dallas.
It's sure to be ugly. But don't call it lucky.