2008 Postseason: January Football

What the Steelers' championship means to me

I've seen a lot of Steelers games over the last 29 years. I'm not sure I've been interested in anything in my life for that long.

This season, I've watched more Steelers football, on my own terms, than I have in any other season. I probably only missed about five minutes of action all year. In order to have it set up that way, I had to make some very difficult, but correct, decisions in 2008.

Because of those events in my personal life, the 2008 Steelers season could not get here soon enough. For me, this Steelers season began in the hot summer months, when I used wireless connections at Starbucks to update this site during training camp.

Then came the actual season. During those first few weeks I could enjoy the games and update the site in my steamy studio apartment.

Now I can look out the window and see a foot of snow as a try to put into words what the Steelers' victory in Super Bowl XLIII means to me.

I know my personal life has no bearing on the Steelers' fortunes. What I'm saying is that sometimes doing what you have to do, no matter how difficult, can pay off in a big way.

What did I say?

Sorry, I was wrong. Holmes had four huge catches on that game-winning drive, including a 6-yard touchdown catch. He had nine receptions for 131 yards.

But let's take a look at what I got right.

I said Santonio Holmes would be the MVP. Scroll down and look it up.

I was a little off on the score. I thought it would be Steelers 33-31. Final score was Steelers 27-23.

Whisenhunt has to go and say "It's unfortunate there were that many penalties called." Well, you don't want penalties called, don't commit them.

This game will not be remembered for the officiating. It should be remembered for Ben Roethlisberger's grace under pressure. He's now the 10th quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls.

I'm going to enjoy "The Office," then get to my column.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Super Bowl XLIII Champions

I just don't know what else to say, except that maybe the grass got more of that Gatorade bath than Tomlin.

I have no word yet, but I think Santonio Holmes should be MVP. Nine catches, including two huge ones on that game-winning drive.  I think he shoudl be getting keys to a car real soon.

I'm wiped. 

Best Super Bowl ever?

By Mike Batista
February 6, 2009

As we bask in the gleam of another Lombardi Trophy, here are 20 more thoughts on Super Bowl XLIII and the Steelers' championship season:

   1. This is truly the golden age of the Super Bowl. The last two have been the best two. This won't be a popular opinion, but Super Bowl XLII was just a little bit better than Super Bowl XLIII. Don't forget, the Steelers didn't need a touchdown on their final drive. They could have tied the game with a field goal. The Giants were down four points and needed the touchdown against the Patriots (by the way, both the Giants last year and the Steelers this year scored their winning TDs with 35 seconds left). Santonio Holmes' touchdown catch and David Tyree's catch against his helmet are a wash. But the Giants' monumental upset of the unbeaten Patriots gives the game the edge. Hey, Super Bowl XLIII is the second-best of all-time. What's wrong with that?
   2. Just so we're not hearing for the rest of our lives that Kurt Warner's fumble should have been reviewed at the end of Super Bowl XLIII, let me explain why it wasn't. If the call was overturned and ruled an incomplete pass, the Cardinals would have had time for a Hail Mary, and Bible Boy Warner has said enough Hail Marys.
   3. Super Bowl XLIII didn't have to be that close, by the way. All the Steelers needed to do was haul in truckloads of fake snow. We know the Cardinals don't like playing in the snow.
   4. Having watched the game in Massachusetts, I listened to WEEI in Boston the day after the game, and they were pretty much saying the game was fixed so the Steelers would win. Yup, they hate the Steelers up there. After hating the Patriots for so long, it feels so good to be hated back.
   5. This is an indictment on my housekeeping, but when I did get back to New York, I looked on my floor and smiled when I saw the December 1 Boston Globe sports section with the headline "'Burgher Joint." This was the day after the Steelers beat the Patriots 33-10 at Gillette Stadium, establishing themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
   6. Speaking of that game, I can't believe I haven't written this yet. But the Steelers beat the Patriots 33-10. My seat was in Row 33. The Steelers' last touchdown was scored by No. 33, Gary Russell (No. 3, Jeff Reed, scored the game's final point). And Ben Roethlisberger attempted 33 passes.
   7. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt handled the loss pretty well. He had to. Mike Holmgren needed a shoulder to cry on.
   8. A church in Pittsburgh had to cancel confession because of the Steelers' victory parade. This on top of beating a team of Cardinals, with a Pope at tight end and a deeply religious quarterback. God's gonna be pissed!
   9. Now that the Steelers have won two Super Bowls in four seasons, they are officially not the Atlanta Braves of this decade.
  10. Reason No. 867 Mike Tomlin is the NFL's coolest coach: According to ProFootballTalk.com, at the team meeting the night before the Super Bowl, he played Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" to get the Steelers in a meditative mood.
  11. Speaking of Tomlin and his tactics, I wonder if more teams will use starters in "meaningless" games at the end of the regular season. Having already wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Steelers played to win against the Browns in Week 17. It almost cost them their starting quarterback, but it also helped them tune up for the playoffs.
  12. How nice was it to see Tomlin with his arm around Hines Ward on the sideline just before the game on Sunday? A much better sideline image than Tomlin trying to comfort Ward last January when play got chippy during their playoff loss to Jacksonville.
  13. The Steelers need to make no apologies after navigating the toughest regular-season schedule in the NFL, but they got slight relief in the playoffs. They were one round away from facing three of the teams that beat them this season. They beat the Chargers after the Chargers took care of the Colts. They beat the Ravens after the Ravens took care of the Titans. They beat the Cardinals after the Cardinals took care of the Eagles. For that matter, the Eagles took care of the Giants. So the Steelers beat the teams who beat the teams who beat them. That works.
  14. If the Steelers repeat, they could make a claim as Team of the Decade. The Patriots and Steelers both would have three championships since 2000.
  15. Unlike Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady has never had to come from behind on his final drive in a Super Bowl. In Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII, the game was tied and the Patriots drove to set up the game-winning field goal.
  16. Roethlisberger joins Brady, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, Jim Plunkett, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese and Bart Starr as quarterbacks to win more than one Super Bowl. Pretty nice company. Now let's take a look at some of the quarterbacks who have won just one Super Bowl: Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Steve Young, Brett Favre and, ahem, Warner.
  17. There are some parallels between Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress. Both are capable of epic greatness and epic stupidity. Hopefully Holmes is done doing stupid things.
  18. Thanks to Holmes, Steelers fans no longer cringe when they see uniform No. 10. Kordell Stewart does not evoke fond memories of that number, but it does have some impressive lineage. Also wearing the number were Roy Gerela, kicker for their first three Super Bowl teams, Earl Morrall, their quarterback in 1957 before going on to a productive 20-year career, and Byron "Whizzer" White, who went on to become a Supreme Court Justice.
  19. Speaking of uniform numbers, the Steelers haven't officially retired any except for Ernie Stautner's No. 70. But they don't give out Terry Bradshaw's No. 12, Franco Harris' No. 32 or Joe Greene's No. 75. And I suspect they won't give out Jerome Bettis' No. 36. But they have given out Lynn Swann's No. 88 and John Stallworth's No. 82. No one has those numbers now, and I wonder if it has something to do with more and more receivers wearing numbers between 10 and 19, like Holmes and Limas Sweed (No. 14). Perhaps the NFL has only recently allowed receivers to wear those numbers. It should give the Steelers the flexibility to unofficially retire No. 82, No. 88 and eventually No. 86.
  20. Not only are the Steelers the only team to win six Super Bowls, but their only Super Bowl loss was a great contribution to the Super Bowl era. Before the Steelers played the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, 10 of the previous 12 Super Bowls were decided by at least two touchdowns. Very often in the 1980s the game was lampooned as a Super Bore. But the Steelers fought the Cowboys until the end, trailing 20-17 in the closing minutes before Neil O'Donnell threw his infamous interception into the waiting arms of Larry Brown. The Cowboys went on to win 27-17. Only five of the 13 Super Bowls since then have been decided by two touchdowns or more. It's the Steelers who have made the Super Bowl Super.

Champions again

Super Bowl XLIII: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23

By Mike Batista
February 2, 2009

It looked like the Steelers were about to win another dull Super Bowl, just like they did three years ago.

I would have been fine with that. The Steelers had pulled out their share of heart-stopping victories during this great 2008 season. I didn't think I could handle another one.

With the Steelers leading 20-7 after three quarters, I was looking forward to them winning a record sixth Super Bowl in a nice and tidy fashion.

Then, as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would say, the wheels came off.

Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes put the wheels back on when the Steelers drove 78 yards in eight plays to set up Holmes' game-winning, 6-yard touchdown catch with 35 seconds left.

It was Roethlisberger's 19th career fourth-quarter comeback. But to just call it a fourth-quarter comeback doesn't begin to describe the way Roethlisberger turned a tide that was swallowing up the Steelers.

Falling apart

Not only were the Steelers down 23-20 in the game's final minutes. On defense, they were gassed and desperate. On offense, it looked like their inability to run the ball and protect Roethlisberger was finally going to catch up with them.

It all started when the Cardinals went no-huddle with 11:30 left in the game, using less than four minutes to move 87 yards. Kurt Warner finally exploited Larry Fitzgerald's height advantage over Ike Taylor by hitting him on a fade route from the 1, narrowing the Steelers' lead to 20-14.

Then the Steelers went three-and-out. One of those plays was a Darnell Dockett sack of Roethlisberger for a 10-yard loss. In fairness, the offensive line yielded just two sacks, both of them by Dockett. Roethlisberger avoided more by doing his impersonation of a pinball on several occasions.

On their ensuing drive, the Cardinals got a boost on the first play when Taylor was flagged for unnecessary roughness. The Steelers committed five of their seven penalties in the final quarter.

Meanwhile, some of their defensive players appeared to be breathing heavily. I didn't like the looks of things.

The Cardinals punted, but downed the ball on the Steelers' 2. Another unnecessary roughness call, this one on James Harrison, put the ball on the 1. The next Steelers' penalty cost them two points. Center Justin Hartwig held in the end zone to give the Cardinals a safety, narrowing the Steelers' lead to 20-16 with three minutes left.

At the time, I didn't think a safety was the worst thing in the world for the Steelers. They could kick the ball away from the 20 instead of punting it from the shadow of their own goal post. Down four points, the Cardinals still needed a touchdown.

The Cardinals got a touchdown, and they got it quickly.

With the game in Tampa, Fla., and the Steelers' safeties lining up in Clearwater, Warner threw to Fitzgerald, who ran straight down the middle of the field for a 64-yard touchdown and a 23-20 Cardinals lead. That play made it look like the Steelers' defense had nothing left. They were well on their way to being pasted for more than 400 yards.

Yo, Holmes!

Roethlisberger had 2 minutes, 37 seconds to work with. Before he could reattach the wheels, however, a tail light went out. Chris Kemoeatu was caught holding, backing the Steelers to their own 12.

Then Santonio Holmes started etching his name in Super Bowl lore.

Perhaps it was fitting that Super Bowl III MVP Joe Namath brought out the Lombardi Trophy after the game. Namath is famous for his bold prediction that the Jets would beat the heavily favored Colts.

Holmes' lips were just as loose during Super Bowl week. But unlike Namath, he'd probably like to have his words back. He admitted that he sold drugs as a teen-ager.

So while infamy beckoned for both Holmes and the Steelers, who were about to set the record for the biggest blown lead by a Super Bowl loser, Holmes caught a 14-yard pass to turn a first-and-20 into a second-and-6 at the Steelers' 26.

The Steelers came out of the two-minute warning facing a third-and-6, and Holmes hauled in a 13-yard reception to put the ball at the Steelers' 39.

The game changer came three plays later, with 62 seconds remaining. A 40-yard Holmes reception, including about 30 after the catch, put the ball on the Cardinals' 6, and the Steelers used their last timeout with 49 seconds left.

The clock stopped again when a Roethlisberger pass went through Holmes' fingers in the left corner of the end zone. Then they tried the same play in the right corner of the end zone. Roethlisberger, either ballsy or color blind, threw the ball over three red shirts into the hands of Holmes, who barely got a toe from each foot down in the end zone for the winning touchdown, sealing the Super Bowl MVP award with nine catches for 131 yards, and putting his checkered past in the background.

LaMarr Woodley's strip sack of Warner and Brett Keisel's recovery locked up the Lombardi Trophy. It turned out the defense had a little something left, after all.

Deja vu

Holmes not only responded on that final drive. With Hines Ward limited, he filled the void the entire game.

Despite nursing a sprained knee, however, Ward was a factor.

He sort of made like Willis Reed by catching a 38-yard pass on the game's second play, helping to set up a field goal.

The Steelers made it 10-0 on their second possession with Gary Russell's 1-yard touchdown run.

But this wouldn't be one of those vintage 1980s Super Bowl blowouts. Suddenly I thought we'd have a halftime score reminiscent of the last time the Steelers played a 9-7 team in the Super Bowl. The Cardinals pulled to within 10-7 and had a first-and-goal at the 1 with 18 seconds left in the half.

I was getting ready to accept a 14-10 halftime lead for the Cards, which would have been eerily similar to the 13-10 halftime lead the Rams had over the Steelers 29 years ago in Super Bowl XIV. That had me worried, considering the Cardinals had Kurt Warner and those Rams had Vince Ferragamo.

But Harrison eased my worries, intercepting a Warner pass at the goal line and returning it 100 yards for a touchdown and a 17-7 halftime lead for the Steelers. What a night for Harrison. He ran for the longest play in Super Bowl history and the refs actually called holding a couple of times on guys trying to block him.

Deja vu, Part II

Before Super Bowl XLIII became one for the ages in the fourth quarter, I had one more Steelers Super Bowl flashback.

The Steelers put together a 16-play drive, aided by a facemask penalty and two personal fouls on the Cardinals. Up 10, they were deep in Arizona territory late in the third quarter.

When did we see this before?

I'll tell you where. In Super Bowl XL, the Steelers led the Seahawks 14-3 in the third quarter and got to the Seahawks' 7. But instead of making it a three-possession game, Roethlisberger threw an interception that was returned 76 yards, and the Seahawks eventually pulled to within 14-10.

In that situation on Sunday, the Steelers settled for a field goal to make it 20-7. They didn't get the touchdown, which kept it a two-possession game. But I felt that by getting points and not turning the ball over, Roethlisberger got the job done.

Little did I know that Roethlisberger's work was far from done, that the events of the fourth quarter would make Super Bowl XLIII a memorable one.

Stock this, Warner!

By Mike Batista
January 31, 2009

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he didn't have a motivational speech prepared for Super Bowl Eve. He said he'd "wing it."

Here's some help, Mike: Losing to Arizona would be a Cardinal sin.

That doesn't mean the Cardinals aren't worthy opponents. They earned their way to Tampa.

That said, the Steelers didn't go 12-4 against the toughest schedule in the NFL, then survive a bloodbath with the Ravens so that they could lose to the Arizona Freaking Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

The Steelers' biggest deficit of the season was 17 points. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have trailed 34-0 to the Jets (a 56-35 loss), 31-7 to the Eagles (a 48-20 loss), 28-0 to the Vikings (a 35-14 loss at home) and 44-0 to the Patriots (a 47-7 loss).

If the Cardinals beat the Steelers, the New England Film Crew would use that 47-7 win over the Cardinals to make a BCS-type claim to the world championship.

The Steelers cannot lose to this team.

How Big Ben ticks

One reason people go to Arizona is for witness protection, because they possess valuable information.

As their former offensive coordinator, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt possesses valuable information about the Steelers, and in the Super Bowl he will take the stand.

When he was hired as the Cardinals' coach, Whisenhunt took with him from Pittsburgh offensive line coach Russ Grimm and probably a shitload of notepads and pens from the supply closet. Grimm, by the way, might have raided the snack drawer before he left.

Whisenhunt has since acquired former Steelers Sean Morey (special teams ace), Brian St. Pierre (backup quarterback), Clark Haggans (linebacker on injured reserve) and Jerame Tuman (tight end). Speaking of tight ends, isn't it funny that a guy named Leonard Pope is on the Cardinals?

Those former Steelers might be able to supply some intelligence, but the real mother lode for the Cardinals is Whisenhunt's knowledge of Ben Roethlisberger's tendencies, how his mind works. That's going to get the Cardinals at least an interception, and hopefully not much more than that.

When it comes to coaches against their old team in the Super Bowl, history doesn't bode well for the Steelers. In Super Bowl XXXVII, Jon Gruden led the Buccaneers to a 48-21 whipping of the Raiders, who he coached the year before.

Steelers fans can take solace in the fact that there's been an extra year since Whisenhunt's departure from the Steelers. That's given Roethlisberger two years to mature since he's been under Whisenhunt's tutelage.

Don't think that Whisenhunt doesn't want to show Dan Rooney that he made a mistake by letting him go to Arizona and hiring Tomlin over him. Tomlin has to prove the Steelers made the right call.

One thing Tomlin doesn't have to prove is that he's cooler than Whisenhunt. He's Shaft to Whisenhunt's Taggert on "Beverly Hills Cop."

I wonder how much red meat Whisenhunt eats.

The Book of Kurt

The Cardinals are supposed to be a feel-good story.

I don't feel so good about them.

If that chip on Whisenhunt's shoulder (and now Grimm's because he didn't get into the Hall of Fame) isn't enough to work up a hatred for the Cardinals, then how about Bible Boy Kurt Warner?

What's that you say? How can we hate someone as inspirational as Warner, who went from stocking grocery shelves to winning the Super Bowl?


Warner leading the 1999 St. Louis Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV was wrong on so many levels.

The Rams were the first indoor team to win a Super Bowl, and they didn't have to play any road games in the playoffs. That gives Warner automatic hate points.

I think every indoor and warm-weather team should be required to win at least one game in the elements to be considered a legitimate Super Bowl champion. How'd that snowstorm in New England work out for the Cardinals? And they didn't exactly absolve themselves with that road playoff win at Carolina. It was 45 degrees. Not cold enough.

Another reason I didn't like seeing Warner's Rams win the Super Bowl was because it was like watching video-game football with all the points they scored. Great champions should be known for their defense, not their offense.

And the Rams don't belong in St. Louis. They belong in Los Angeles. Just like the Cardinals don't belong in Arizona. They belong in St. Louis.

In 2001, when Warner and the Rams could have made themselves useful by beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, they choked.

The 2008 Cardinals are a poor man's version of Warner's Rams. On Slate.com, Charles P. Pierce referred to the Cardinals as "a glorified Arena Football League team." I can't think of a better way to say it.

And another thing, the Cardinals' offensive line has played together for all 19 games this season, and in the Super Bowl they'll be allowed to hold James Harrison.

Let's see how Warner does behind the Steelers' offensive line. He'd better be holding a Bible.

Cactus pricks

Here's more fuel for Cardinal hatred: For a team that's not a rival, they have a history of being a pain in the Steelers' ass.

The Steelers and Cardinals have only played eight times since the merger, with the Steelers going 5-3. But the Steelers are only 2-3 against the Cardinals since they moved to Arizona.

Mike Tomlin's first career loss as Steelers coach came last season at Arizona. Steve Breaston returned a punt for a touchdown to break a 7-7 tie in the fourth quarter (I know Breaston's from Pittsburgh, but let's face it, he's named for a female body part). The Cardinals went on to win 21-14 at their spaceship of a stadium.

By the way, Heinz Field is way cooler than University of Phoenix Stadium. People from the University of Phoenix call me all the time asking if I want to take classes. People from Heinz never call and ask me to use their ketchup.

The Steelers and Cardinals met twice in the 1990s, both overtime games at Sun Devil Stadium. In 1997, the Steelers won 26-20 on a Jerome Bettis touchdown in OT. In 1994, they lost 20-17.

In both of those seasons, the Steelers would lose the AFC championship game at home. Coincidence? I think not. I swear an ancient desert tribe put a curse on the Steelers that kept them out of the Super Bowl those years.

In 1988, their first year in Arizona, the Cardinals were vultures. At Sun Devil Stadium, they beat the Steelers 31-14, picking at their carcass during the rock-bottom lowest point of the forgettable 1980s. The Steelers went 5-11 that season. The Steel Curtain days were a distant memory and Bill Cowher was still the Browns secondary coach.

The Steelers beat the Cardinals 24-21 at St. Louis on the way to winning their fourth Super Bowl. But they had to come back from a 21-7 deficit in the fourth quarter. That victory improved the Steelers to 3-0. It was two weeks before I watched the Steelers for the first time. Figures it was their first loss of the season that I saw, a 17-14 loss at Philadelphia.

If the Cardinals didn't suck so much, maybe that game would have been on national TV and my introduction to the Steelers would have been that resounding comeback.

Damn Cardinals!

Thou shalt not lose

I wrote in an earlier column that the Steelers would avoid being one-hit wonders by winning Super Bowl XLIII. They would have multiple championships in their era. They'd need another one to match what the Patriots did in the first half of the decade. But if Tomlin hands Rooney the Vince Lombardi Trophy, it will give the Steelers two championships in four years. In the last five years, no other team has won two.

That would make the Steelers not just the only team with six Super Bowl titles, but the best thing going in the NFL right now.

That's a much loftier status than their Flavor of the Month opponents could achieve with a win.

That's why losing to this team of Cardinals, with a Pope and a Bible Boy, would be a sin.

More visuals

By Mike Batista
January 30, 2009

Tuesday was Media Day at the Super Bowl. Today is Picture Day on Steelahs.com.

Sean's Ramblings asked members of the Steelers blogging community what their attire will be for Super Bowl XLIII, as well as a prediction. I sent him this photo:

Plain old Steelers T-shirt on the left. Reebok Steelers hoodie on the right. Steelers cap on top of T-shirt.

It's important to not wear anything indicating past Steelers championships. Bad luck. The only thing in the photo I won't be wearing is the cap on the right. I had been wearing it for a few years and retired it after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. It was the official good-luck cap of 2005. The cap on the left would earn the same status if the Steelers win Sunday.

Not pictured is the Rolling Rock I will drink. I'll be enjoying the taste of Old Latrobe in New York or Massachusetts. Not sure yet where I'll be watching the game.

Prediction: Steelers 33, Cardinals 31
MVP: Santonio Holmes
Other stuff that will happen: Troy Polamalu will get an interception. Limas Sweed will make a key third-down catch.

OK, let me explain that wacky score. No, I didn't drink a six-pack of Rolling Rock before typing it. Rather, it is a tribute to the intoxication of youth.

Sometime in the early 80s (see first photo below under "Growing up Steelers"), when Terry Bradshaw was still with the Steelers and the Cardinals were still in St. Louis, I wrote some predictions on a sheet of three-ring binder paper. I picked the playoff teams and the results for each game. My Super Bowl pick was Steelers-Cardinals, with the Steelers winning 33-31. It wasn't based on research. The Steelers were getting old and the Cardinals sucked (although not as bad as they did six weeks ago). I was just playing around.

Now I'm serious. I'll even break down the score by quarters. Cardinals will lead 21-7 after the first quarter. They'll increase the lead to 24-7 before the Steelers go no-huddle and pull to within 24-21 at halftime. Two Jeff Reed field goals will make it 27-24 Steelers after three quarters. Two more Reed field goals will make it a two-possession game, 33-24. The Cardinals will get a late touchdown and try an onsides kick. But the Steelers will recover and secure a record sixth Lombardi Trophy.

There you go, pick your squares now.

The Steelers' comeback from a 17-point deficit will be a Super Bowl record. Santonio Holmes will earn the MVP by becoming the first player to return a punt for a touchdown in a Super Bowl, catching a pass for a touchdown and hauling in another long reception to set up one of the field goals.

Honest, officer, I've had nothing to drink.

Growing up Steelers

By Mike Batista
January 30, 2009

As I count down the hours until I watch the Steelers in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in my life, here's a pictoral history of my years as a Steelers fan.


Age 9: Sold on the black and gold

This was taken within a year after the Steelers beat the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, which is the first Super Bowl I watched. I began following football in 1979, just in time for the last year of the Steel Curtain dynasty. If only this fresh-faced young lad knew the mediocrity he would have to endure for the next decade.

Age 20: Here comes the sun

As you can see, all those years of crappy Steelers football left me loopy. Or it could have been the 20-mile Walk for Hunger I had just completed when this photo was taken. This was May of 1992. Chuck Noll retired four months earlier, and the Steelers hired a coach who I had never heard of named Bill Cowher. After 14 years, Cowher led them to that long-awaited fifth Super Bowl title. A year later, he retired, and the Steelers hired a coach I had never heard of named Mike Tomlin ...

Yes, that is a Boston Celtics shirt I'm wearing. Remember, I'm a Boston sports fan in every sport except the NFL, hence the "ahs" in Steelahs.com. Besides, this Walk for Hunger was in Boston.


Age 37: High on the hog

This is what years of stuffing your face with pizza, wings and beer while watching the Steelers at sports bars will do to you. I'm skinny no more. In fact, at 5-foot-7, 185 pounds, I'm proud to say I weigh more than two Steelers: cornerbacks Fernando Bryant (5-10, 175) and Anthony Madison (5-9, 180) and the same as wide receiver Nate Washington (6-1, 185). So don't screw up Sunday, guys. I'll kick your asses!

Curious Mike

By Mike Batista
January 29, 2009

I was wrong about Mike Tomlin.

No, I'm not talking about my feelings when he was hired as Steelers coach. Except for the initial shock, I had no problem with his hiring.

I'm talking about Tomlin's demeanor during Super Bowl week. I thought he was so due for a meltdown. Both before and after Ben Roethlisberger got the concussion in the final regular-season game against the Browns, Tomlin started to get a little testy toward reporters. His relationship with Ed Bouchette, the dean of Steelers scribes, was a bit strained.

I figured he would explode after the first stupid question during Media Day.

Instead, Tomlin seems to be winning over the media. He's already won over the fans, who voted him Motorola Coach of the Year.

There was a story in the New York Times earlier this week that said Tomlin was a reluctant intellectual in his younger years. Tomlin would throw away the "My Child is an Honor Roll Student" bumper stickers that came in the mail before his mother could get a hold of them. He made fun of a classmate in school by calling him "Poem Boy." Then he goes and quotes Robert Frost after the Steelers win the AFC championship.

A childhood literary favorite of Tomlin's was "Curious George," which he affably revealed to a young reporter during Super Bowl Media Day, perhaps providing a glimpse of Tomlin the Dad.

I've been curious about Tomlin since he was hired as Steelers coach. He's always had a mystique about him. With the Steelers in the Super Bowl, we're finally learning more about him.

If the Steelers win Super Bowl XLIII, I hope someone does a book on Tomlin. I'd love to write it, but he probably could write it himself.

Taking the fifth (and sixth?)

By Mike Batista
January 28, 2009

The Steelers are in Super Bowl XLIII, and I've been writing about nature, fashion and music.

I can understand if you're tired of reading about cardinals (the bird, not the team or the Pope wannabes), jersey colors and one-hit wonders. And you might be tired of what I'm about to bring up. But it might make you feel better about a certain subject.

Did the Steelers win Super Bowl XL because of the officials?

Well, the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl ring that day, and I'm taking the fifth on that question.

The officiating in that game, which I'll admit was poor, is still being talked about three years later. But the Steelers don't get enough credit for the resourcefulness of that 21-10 victory.

I think the week off before the Super Bowl hurt the Steelers more than the Seahawks. To get to the Super Bowl, the Steelers not only had to win three playoff games on the road, they also had to win seven games in seven weeks. The week off ebbed their wave of momentum (by the way, I think the week off will hurt the Cardinals Sunday for the same reason). The Steelers weren't at their best on the day of the Super Bowl.

On top of all that, the Seahawks came out throwing screen pass after screen pass to negate the Steelers' pass rush. They had the upper hand.

The Steelers didn't get a first down until 19 minutes into the game, and even then Antwan Randle-El bobbled the pass from Ben Roethlisberger before catching it.

If people think the Steelers got help from the refs during Super Bowl XL, they certainly didn't get much help from their quarterback, and Roethlisberger has admitted as much this week.

But if you look at his performance another way, Roethlisberger was the MacGyver of quarterbacks. He threw a shovel pass to Hines Ward on third-and-6 during their first scoring drive. Then on third-and-28 from the Seattle 40, Roethlisberger provided the first glimpses of his now famous ability to keep plays alive.

On a broken play that seemed to last 45 seconds, Roethlisberger found Ward near the goal line to set up first-and-goal and an eventual touchdown. You can't complain about the officiating if you can't get off the field on third-and-28.

Roethlisberger completed just nine of 21 passes in the game, and two of his completions were the shovel pass to Randle-El and a pass that Ward had to bend over to grab just inches off the ground. That's what you call winning ugly.

The performance of both teams, not just the Steelers, made this one of the least exciting Super Bowls in recent memory to fans outside of Seattle and Pittsburgh.

For general audiences, perhaps the only moment in the game more entertaining than the commercials was Willie Parker's Super Bowl-record, 75-yard touchdown run, which gave the Steelers a 14-3 lead early in the third quarter.

After the Seahawks narrowed the gap to 14-10, the Steelers put the game away when Randle-El took the ball on a reverse and threw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward. A trick play, with Roethlisberger throwing a key block. That's what I call resourceful.

The Steelers won Super Bowl XL because they made the big plays and found a way to keep drives going by turning junk into gold.

But if you're Catholic like me (and the Rooneys) and you still can't flush out that Catholic guilt about how the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, the Steelers can absolve that guilt by doing unto the Cardinals what the Jets (56-35), Eagles (48-20), Vikings (35-14 at Arizona) and Patriots (47-7) did unto them. If they can do that, they certainly won't need any Hail Marys.

This much
is true

By Mike Batista
January 26, 2009

What do the Steelers have in common with Debby Boone, Kajagoogoo, Nena, Soft Cell and Spandau Ballet?

They're all one-hit wonders.

But the Steelers have an opportunity to change that in Super Bowl XLIII.

In football terms, the Steelers are in the same boat as the Buccaneers, Ravens, Rams, Packers and Bears. All of those teams won just one Super Bowl during their era.

The Packers won the first two Super Bowls, but their Super Bowl XXXI title is set apart from those because it came three decades later. By the same principle, the Steelers' One for the Thumb is on a stage separate from their first four.

With a victory over the Cardinals on Sunday, the Steelers would not only win an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl, they would also win their second in four years.


Two championships in four years would put the Steelers a notch above the one-hit wonders, teams whose Lombardi Trophies sit like only children on their mantels.

But it wouldn't quite put them in the same class as the Audio-Visual Society of New England, who won Super Bowls in 2001, 2003 and 2004, the Broncos (1997, 1998), the Cowboys (1992, 1993 and 1995) or the 49ers (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994).

My definition of a dynasty is three championships in four years or four in a decade. That makes the Patriots of the 2000s, the Cowboys of the 1990s, the 49ers of the 1980s and the Steelers of the 1970s the only dynasties of the Super Bowl era. No team has won three straight championships. But if one ever did, I obviously would consider it a dynasty.

Teams winning two titles in a row, like the Broncos, Dolphins (1972, 1973) and Packers (1966, 1967) are mini-dynasties.

So the Steelers wouldn't be a dynasty with a win Sunday. Not yet, anyway.

One and done

When it comes to Super Bowl one-hit wonders, the 1985 Bears are Dexy's Midnight Runners (although "Come on, Eileen" gets played a little more in dance clubs these days than the "Super Bowl Shuffle").

The '85 Bears might have been one of the most dominating Super Bowl winners, beating the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. But the closest they got to another Super Bowl during their window was the 1988 NFC championship game, where they were pounded at home by the 49ers.

Brett Favre led the Packers to the championship in 1996 and brought them back to the Super Bowl the next year. The Rams with Kurt Warner won the 1999 title and got back to the Super Bowl two years later. But both teams saw their dynasty hopes dashed by underdogs. The Packers were upset by the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII and the Rams were stunned by the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.

It wasn't exactly the quarterbacks who led the Ravens (Trent Dilfer, 2000) and Bucs (Brad Johnson, 2002) to the promised land. They won their titles with defense and showed that you don't need a star quarterback to win a Super Bowl. But if you want to win more than one Super Bowl, that's a different story.

It's the quarterback, stupid

In the 30 years since Terry Bradshaw won his fourth Super Bowl, the only quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls are Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Tom Brady.

Nice company to be in, and either Ben Roethlisberger or Kurt Warner will be joining them Sunday.

The Manning brothers aren't bad, either, and they still have a chance to give their Lombardi Trophies some company. Just not this year.

Warner was third in the NFL this season with a quarterback rating of 96.9. Roethlisberger was 24th at 80.1, but won four games with his fourth-quarter magic.

Having a Warner, a Roethlisberger, a Brady, an Elway, a Montana or a Manning gives teams a chance to win multiple Super Bowls. On the other hand, Super Bowl champs led by Johnson, Dilfer and Mark Rypien (1991 Redskins) have never been back to the Big Game.

Since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, both Warner and Roethlisberger have plunged into depths that would make great material for a "Behind the Music" episode.

But they're both back in the Super Bowl. Warner is fronting a new band, while Roethlisberger can drive the Steelers back to the top of the charts.

As Steelers fans, it would light up our lives.
The Steelers' offensive line allowed 49 sacks this season, 19 of them when they wore white.

Men in white

By Mike Batista
January 23, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII hasn't even started yet, but the Cardinals already have made their first mistake.

As the designated home team, they chose to wear their red jerseys.

That means the Steelers will wear their white jerseys, their underdog jerseys (even though they're favored), their us-against-the-world jerseys.

The Steelers reached Super Bowl XL in 2005 by winning three straight road playoff games, all in their white jerseys.

To help keep that mojo going, Bill Cowher decided they would wear white for the Super Bowl. They could have worn their black jerseys, which is probably what most of their fans would have preferred. Hey, if I ever bought a Steelers jersey, it would be a black one, and it's not just because I'm a slob and would be afraid to spill food on a white jersey.

That said, I like seeing the Steelers in their white jerseys. Since the long and winding road toward One for the Thumb began in 1980, some of the biggest and most surprising Steelers wins have come in white. Here are their top 10 white-uniform wins of the last 29 years:

1. Steelers 21, Colts 18 (2005 AFC divisional playoffs): After this shocking win over the mighty Colts, who started the season 13-0, there was no way in hell the Steelers were losing to the Broncos the following week. They were getting Jerome Bettis home to Detroit.

2. Steelers 21, Seahawks 10 (Super Bowl XL): This isn't No. 1 because it wasn't the huge turning point that the seismic upset of the Colts was. But it did officially end the 26-year wait for One for the Thumb.

3. Steelers 33, Patriots 10 (2008): This victory, the Steelers' first in Foxboro since 1997, established the Steelers as Super Bowl contenders, and look where they are now. It could ultimately prove to be the changing of the guard in the AFC.

4. Steelers 13, Ravens 9 (2008): As big as the win over the Patriots was two weeks earlier, the Steelers didn't need it as badly as they needed this one. It not only secured a playoff spot, but it clinched a first-round bye.

5. Steelers 24, Patriots 21, OT (1997): Of their white-jersey wins over the past three decades, this is the Steelers' most improbable comeback. A stupid Drew Bledsoe interception made it possible.

6. Steelers 24, Broncos 17 (1984 AFC divisional playoffs): The Steelers reached the playoffs with a 9-7 record, and proudly wore their white jerseys in upsetting John Elway and the Orange Crush Broncos.

7. Steelers 26, Oilers 23, OT (1989 AFC wild-card game): The Steelers wore white on New Year's Eve, outdressing the Luv Ya Blue Oilers. The Steelers kicked the mediocre 1980s out the door, and offered a peek into what would be much better days in the two decades to come.

8. Steelers 13, Raiders 7 (1984): This was when the Raiders were perennial Super Bowl contenders and Al Davis still had control of his bowels. The men in white beat the Silver and Black, who then played at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Steelers needed this win on the last weekend of the regular season to make the playoffs, where they upset the Broncos.

9. Steelers 17, Buccaneers 7 (2002): The Bucs didn't lose again after this Monday-nighter in the next-to-last week of the regular season. They went on to win the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, the Steelers didn't get another shot at the Bucs, losing at Tennessee in the divisional playoffs. But they do return to the site of that win for the first time on Super Bowl Sunday.

10. Steelers 20, 49ers 17 (1984): I know very little about this game, except for the fact that it was the only game the 15-1 49ers lost that season. The Steelers were one win away from getting another shot at the 49ers, but they lost 45-28 at Miami in the AFC championship game.

Honorable Mention: Steelers 23, Redskins 6 (2008): This makes the list because of the surprise factor. Historically, the Redskins are one of the few teams that wears its white uniforms at home. I fully expected the Steelers to be in black and the Redskins in white for this Monday night game. But the Redskins, who were 6-2 at the time, came out in burgundy, and the Steelers came out in white. Look what happened.

The Cardinals might have the charm and motivation of underdogs in this Super Bowl. But they have no idea that those white threads somehow make the Steelers play like they have something to prove.

Rare birds

By Mike Batista
January 21, 2009

On Sunday, the Steelers vanquished the Ravens, a bird with a foreboding place in American literature, and one that had haunted them the whole season.

The victory ensured the Steelers of more bird watching, since the other spot in Super Bowl XLIII was being contested by two more teams named for birds.

Many in Pennsylvania anticipated that the Steelers would today be studying the tendencies of a more majestic bird, the Eagles.

Instead, the Steelers get the Cardinals.

Much like the cardinal is a rare sight in the trees and skies of the northeastern United States, the Arizona Cardinals are a rare and surprising sight in the Super Bowl.

When I see a cardinal, everything stops. I'll look at the splash of red perched on the branch - and if possible run for my camera - until it flies away.

The Arizona Cardinals are the subject of that same type of fascination. Theirs is an inspiring story. They overcame a dubious history and silenced a chorus of naysayers during the playoffs to reach the first Super Bowl in franchise history.

But enough already.

By Feb. 1, we're going to be sick of seeing Cardinals, especially the one decorating the team's helmet. That Cardinal is trying really hard to look bad-ass. But unlike ravens and eagles, there's nothing fearsome about cardinals.

We're also going to be sick of hearing about the Cardinals. America seems to be falling in love with these perennial underdogs.

Am I the only one who feels like telling everyone that the Steelers are in the Super Bowl too?

Did anyone see the suit on Cardinals owner Michael Bidwell during the NFC championship trophy presentation? Red jacket. Red tie. He looked like Captain Kangaroo! For that matter, the whole team looks like Captain Kangaroo with those uniforms.

The Steelers need to show the Cardinals that the Super Bowl isn't kid stuff. 

We got a feelin' ...

AFC championship game:
Steelers 23, Ravens 14

By Mike Batista
January 19, 2009

It was happening again.

Another home loss in the AFC championship game was taking shape.

The Steelers led the Ravens 13-0 in the first half, but then started trading touchdowns for field goals. They led 13-7 at halftime, and I tried to think of every possible way the second half could unfold.

Suddenly, just before the third-quarter kickoff, the thought of Hines Ward being out of the game with a knee injury gripped my gut like a vise. I worried that the Steelers wouldn't have enough offensive firepower to put the Ravens away.

Then with the clock melting down to less than five minutes left in the game, the Ravens were driving as the Steelers clung to a 16-14 lead. Joe Flacco finally seemed to be figuring out the Steelers defense, completing five straight passes.

My stomach was in knots.

Sure enough, CBS flashed a graphic indicating the Steelers hadn't lost after leading by 13 or more points since 2001, and never in the playoffs.

But faster than you can say "jinx," Troy Polamalu came to the rescue.

On third-and-13 from the Ravens' 29, Flacco threw a ball destined for the hands of Derrick Mason, who would have been close to a first down. It was about halfway there when Polamalu leaped and plucked it out of the air at the 40. Then came one of the most pleasing and entertaining sights for a Steelers fan, and there couldn't have been a better time for it. Polamalu made one of his patented zigzagging interception returns with his locks flowing wildly from the back of his helmet.

Flacco was the last possible tackler, and he made like a guy trying to hail a cab as Polamalu zoomed by for the touchdown. Jeff Reed's extra point gave the Steelers a 23-14 lead and more importantly made it a two-possession game.

Finally, the Steelers won an AFC championship game at Heinz Field, but the cathartic celebration was temporarily muted when Willis McGahee, who scored both of the Ravens’ touchdowns, was carried off the field on a stretcher after being whacked by Ryan Clark. Doctors said there's no neurological damage.

That play, the most violent hit in a game that delivered more hits than Casey Kasem, resulted in a fumble that Lawrence Timmons recovered.

But the Steelers’ third win over the Ravens in 2008 wouldn’t be any easier than the first two. Their third turnover of the game, combined with the trauma of a fallen teammate, wasn’t enough to make the Ravens fold their tent. The Steelers needed one more takeaway to ensure their second Super Bowl trip in four years. And it came when Tyrone Carter picked off a Flacco pass with 1:20 remaining.

Polamalu still had some unfinished business. As always, No. 43 lined up as the lone back in the Steelers’ victory formation, making their berth in Super Bowl XLIII official.

Speaking of numbers, none of them were pretty on Sunday. That’s what happens when the NFL’s top two defenses grind it out for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Even with his spurt of five straight completions, Flacco was a hideous 13 for 30 for 141 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Not even Ben Roethlisberger could complete half his passes. He was 16 of 33 for 255 yards, one touchdown and no picks.

There would be no long touchdown drives in this game. The Steelers’ TDs came on Polamalu’s return and Santonio Holmes’ 65-yard catch on a busted play. Under pressure on third-and-9, Roethlisberger heaved a ball that easily could have been picked off. Instead, Holmes grabbed it and navigated his way around a slew of purple-and-white jerseys for the score and a 13-0 Steelers lead.

To score their 14 points, the Ravens needed a boost from special teams and a pass interference call in the end zone. In the second quarter, Jim Leonhard returned a Mitch Berger punt 45 yards to the Steelers’ 17. McGahee eventually took it in from the 3 to narrow the Steelers’ lead to 13-7. In the fourth quarter, Ike Taylor apparently thought he was fighting Marcus Smith for a rebound and boxed him out in the end zone.

The pass interference penalty put the ball on the Steelers’ 1. On the next play, Polamalu hurdled the line of scrimmage. It worked the first time when he stopped Flacco on fourth-and-1 at the Steelers’ 34 in the first quarter. But it didn’t work in the fourth quarter. Polamalu took himself out of the play with his jump, and McGahee ran to the outside and scored with ease, whittling the Steelers’ lead to a razor-thin 16-14 with 9:29 left.

It was then that I wondered why a week couldn’t go by in these playoffs without a reminder of Alfred Pupunu.

With McGahee’s second touchdown, Sunday was beginning to resemble vintage 1994 in the gallery of Steelers’ playoff heartbreak. The Steelers led the Chargers 13-3 in the third quarter of the ’94 AFC title game at Three Rivers Stadium when Pupunu caught a touchdown pass to narrow the gap to 13-10. The Chargers went on to win 17-13.

Could the Pupunu Parallel be a harbinger that the Ravens would become the latest Confluence Conquerors? Would they be joining the Chargers, Broncos and Patriots on the list of visiting teams to win AFC title games in Pittsburgh over the last 15 years? Could the Steelers possibly lose a third AFC championship game in the eight-year history of Heinz Field?

Was it happening again?

Thanks to Polamalu, it didn’t happen again.

C’mon black (and gold)!

By Mike Batista
January 14, 2009

Can you see the talent discrepancy between the Ravens and Steelers?

Me neither.

The difference in the quality of these teams can't be spotted with the naked eye. You have to break out your chemistry set and watch the Ravens and Steelers through a microscope in order to see that the Steelers are just a little bit better.

You really have to be better than a team to beat them three times in a season. The Steelers' edge over the Ravens isn't that pronounced. They needed overtime to beat them 23-20 in Week 4 and they needed replay help to beat them 13-9 in Week 15.

And they face them again Sunday in the AFC championship game at Heinz Field.

With these teams so evenly calibrated, hoping for a third Steelers win over the Ravens is like spinning a roulette wheel and hoping the same color comes up three times in a row. I'd say picking this game is like flipping a coin, but the Ravens won the toss Sept. 29 before overtime in Pittsburgh. Didn't do them much good.

As dangerous as the Ravens are, I'm glad the Steelers are playing them and not the Titans on Sunday. The Titans moved the ball up and down the field on the Ravens last week. Had they been able to hang onto the football, I'd have been very concerned about the Steelers having to go back to a place where they lost 31-14 in Week 16.

Even if the Titans had won, the fear factor wouldn't have been quite what it was after the 2004 divisional playoff round. The Steelers were lucky to beat the Jets at home in the Saturday night game after a shaky performance by Ben Roethlisberger, who was finally starting to look like a rookie after leading the Steelers to a 15-1 regular-season record.

Then the next day, the Patriots shut down Peyton Manning and the Colts at Gillette Stadium, winning 20-3. Watching on TV at home, seeing how good the Patriots were, and remembering how bad Roethlisberger was the night before, as the clock hit 0:00, I said "Shit!"

Since 1994, the Steelers have reached seven AFC championship games. That one in 2004, which the Patriots won 41-27, was the only one I really expected them to lose.

The Steelers are 2-4 in their previous six AFC title games. The two toughest losses to take were the shockers against the Chargers in 1994 and the Patriots in 2001. I was surprised they lost to the Broncos in 1997, but the disappointment was nothing close to what it was in '94 and '01.

In the 1995 AFC championship game, the Steelers beat the Colts, sort of. Kordell Stewart, still in his "Slash" days, was credited with a touchdown catch after stepping out of bounds in the end zone during the play. And the Colts would have won if Aaron Bailey held onto the football on Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary at the end.

So the only AFC championship game the Steelers REALLY won over the past three decades came in 2005, when they beat the Broncos 34-17 in Denver on the way to Super Bowl XL. They upset the Colts the week before and wanted Jerome Bettis to finish his career at home in Detroit. There was no way they were losing to the Broncos.

I wish I could say the same thing about Sunday's game. Spin that wheel!

Homeland security

Steelers 35, Chargers 24

By Mike Batista
January 11, 2008

The Steelers stopped the insanity.

Given their postseason history, who’d have thought the Steelers would be called upon to carry the torch for home-field advantage on this wacky playoff weekend?

The Ravens winning in Tennessee wasn’t a huge surprise. But the NFC championship game will be played between a team whose quarterback didn’t know there could be ties in the NFL and a team that lost by 40 at New England in Week 16. Are you kidding me?

The Chargers had a chance to complete the first road sweep of the divisional playoffs since the merger.

Instead, the Steelers restored order on Sunday. And they did it by banning the unruliness that always seems to accompany “January Football” at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t intercepted three times in the first half like he was against Jacksonville last season. There was no Rodney Harrison returning an interception 87 yards for a touchdown. No Troy Brown returning a punt for a touchdown.

There was Philip Rivers’ 41-yard touchdown pass to Vincent “walk a straight line” Jackson two minutes into the game. But I wasn’t too worried about that. Santonio Holmes tied it six minutes later with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown.

I did start to feel uneasy, however, as the second quarter progressed and the score remained 7-7. It was starting to look like the sort of tight game that could turn on something goofy. And I thought such goofiness ensued when the Steelers tried a fake punt on fourth-and-1 at their own 48. Unfortunately, unsung hero Ryan Clark was the man left holding the bag on that one. The direct snap went to him and he was consumed by white jerseys. San Diego used the field position to take a 10-7 lead on a 42-yard Nate Kaeding field goal with two minutes left in the half.

Then the nonsense stopped.

The Steelers put on their two-minute riot gear and marched up the field. Roethlisberger threw a 41-yard yard pass to Hines Ward, beating double coverage, to put the ball on the Chargers’ 3 with 45 seconds left in the half. Willie Parker ran it in from there to give the Steelers a 14-10 lead.

In the third quarter, the Steelers had the Chargers in lockdown, permitting only two plays the entire period. They took the opening kickoff and held onto the ball for almost eight minutes, converting a third-and-7, a third-and-11 and a third-and-8 along the way. On the 13th and final play of the drive, Roethlisberger threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Heath Miller for a 21-10 Steelers lead.

Darren Sproles, who kind of plays the same role for the San Diego 11 that Yen did for Ocean’s 11, returned the ensuing kickoff 63 yards to the Steelers’ 23. It turned out to be just a minor disturbance, however, because the Steelers put their foot down. As in Larry Foote.

On the first play of the Chargers’ possession, Brett Keisel tipped a Rivers pass into the air. Foote came down with it for the interception.

The Steelers didn’t get very far, having to punt from their 34. But because Eric Weddle impersonated a soccer player by taking the ball off his head, the Steelers didn’t have to give up the ball. They had it at the Chargers’ 23 and kept it for the rest of the quarter.

The fourth quarter started out much better than the third for the Chargers, who stopped Carey Davis on a fourth-and-goal from the 1. But on the Steelers’ next possession, Weddle the sweeper, er, free safety interfered with Nate Washington in the end zone, and Gary Russell punched it in from the 1 on the next play to give the Steelers a 28-10 lead with just under 13 minutes left in the game.

Still, there was one more suspect the Steelers needed to investigate. Legedu Naanee (LEG-a-doo NAH-nay) caught a 4-yard touchdown pass to pull the Chargers to within 28-17 with 9:09 left. Naanee was suspected of being this decade’s Alfred Pupunu.

Pupunu, a tight end from Tonga, caught a touchdown pass to get the Chargers back into the game in the 1994 AFC championship at Three Rivers Stadium. The Steelers lost the game 17-13, spawning their infamous home playoff vulnerability.

Naanee, however, had nothing to hide. Besides being a Charger, the only thing he had in common with Pupunu (Pah-POO-new) was a name that’s fun to say. He was officially absolved when Parker ran 16 yards for his second touchdown, increasing the Steelers’ lead to 35-17 with just under five minutes left.

Parker ran the ball 27 times for 146 yards, the most he’s had in a game since gaining a team-record 223 against the Browns on Dec. 7, 2006. It was a performance that returned the Steelers to their grind-it-out roots – just in time for what promises to be a smash mouth AFC championship game next Sunday against the Ravens.

Ah, the Ravens. Another orderly bunch coming to the shores of the Confluence.

Charge this

By Mike Batista
January 6, 2009

This is my favorite sports weekend of the year.

The Super Bowl, as great as it is, is just as much a stage for celebrities to be seen as it is a football game. The conference championships is just a one-day affair. Wild-card weekend is a full two days of football, but it’s also a process of weeding out the second-tier teams.

The divisional playoffs is a weekend of wall-to-wall football, four games featuring teams that all have a case for a spot in the Super Bowl.

And for the first time in three years, the Steelers are involved.

History lesson

The good news for the Steelers is the Colts are out. They were the monster in the closet, the hottest team in the NFL with a victory at Heinz Field under their belt.

So the Steelers get the Chargers on Sunday. The Chargers entered the playoffs 8-8, but the Steelers won’t take them lightly. I mean, the Steelers have never underestimated the Chargers in the playoffs before, have they?

Oh, yeah. There was that time when they rehearsed for a Super Bowl video in the week leading up to the 1994 AFC championship game. They lost 17-13 to the Chargers at Three Rivers Stadium. Woops.

The Chargers are 2-13 all-time in Pittsburgh, but both of those victories have come in playoff games.

In 1982, the Chargers beat the Steelers 31-28 in the first round of a 16-game playoff tournament that was instituted after a players’ strike shortened the regular season to nine games. Terry Bradshaw completed a career-high 14 straight passes in that game and the Steelers had a 28-17 lead in the fourth quarter. But Dan Fouts and the Air Coryell Chargers came back.

One of the drawbacks to the tournament format was that not all first-round games were shown in every TV market. And this was long before DirecTV. I was 10 years old at the time, and I was at home watching whatever game was being shown in Rhode Island. My only access to the Chargers-Steelers game was the ticker that flashed at the bottom of the screen every time the score changed. And the score changed a lot. I felt so helpless. The Steelers’ season ended, and I couldn’t be there to pay my respects.

By any “Mean”s necessary

The Steelers and Chargers easily could have met in the 1979 playoffs. That game would have been in San Diego. The Steelers were spanked 35-7 at Jack Murphy Stadium that season. The Steelers and Chargers both finished 12-4, but the Chargers had the No. 1 seed in the playoffs by virtue of that win. The Steelers didn’t have to go back to San Diego. The Houston Oilers took care of the Chargers in the divisional playoffs, with perhaps a little help from the Steelers.

Mean Joe Greene said something interesting in an interview on WFAN in the days leading up to Super Bowl XL. To the best of my recollection, he said the Steelers watched game film of Fouts after their loss to the Chargers and noticed that he shifted his feet a certain way before passing. He said the Steelers gave this information to the Oilers, and the Oilers upset the Chargers. That earned them a ticket to Pittsburgh, where they lost 27-13 in the AFC championship game. The Steelers went on to beat the Rams 31-19 in Super Bowl XIV.

If Mean Joe is to be believed, maybe those two playoff losses to the Chargers was karma biting the Steelers in the ass.

Winter wonderland?

As the Steelers and Chargers meet in the playoffs for the third time in three decades, again there is intrigue. The Steelers’ win over the Chargers on Nov. 16 came by the quirky final score of 11-10, the first such score in NFL history. The specter of malfeasance was raised by the Steelers’ 13 penalties to the Chargers’ two, which didn’t help them cover the spread, and Troy Polamalu’s disallowed touchdown at the end, which directly prevented them from covering the spread.

Conspiracy theories aside, the fact remains that the Chargers almost beat the Steelers back when they sucked. They fell to 4-6 with that loss. Now the Chargers don’t suck so much. They’ve won five straight games. This might finally be the team that everyone, including me, thought was the best in the NFL before the season began.

At least the Chargers won’t get the same break with the weather they got in 1994. As I recall, the temperature was in the 50s or 60s for that game. They’re supposed to be in the teens on Sunday. Still, let’s not make any Super Bowl videos.

The real jinx

As I pointed out in a previous column, my research shows that the Steelers have done pretty well against the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. But the SI cover jinx is like playing the Kansas City Chiefs compared to the ESPN the Magazine cover jinx.

Fifteen Steelers defensive players appeared on the cover of the Dec. 29 issue. Unlike SI, there’s no readily available gallery of ESPN the Magazine covers. But in surfing the Web I came across two past Steelers covers.

Ben Roethlisberger, then a rookie, appeared on the Jan. 1, 2005 cover – then went on to perform like he slipped on a banana peel in the playoffs. Willie Parker appeared on the Nov. 22, 2007 issue – a month before breaking his leg.

So, yes, there is an ESPN the Magazine cover jinx, and I thought it had struck again when watching SportsCenter Monday morning. They introduced “Breaking News” and mentioned Steelers linebacker James Harrison. I thought, “Shit! He’s injured.” But thankfully, he wasn’t. He had just been named Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

But the Steelers aren’t out of the woods yet. They should be afraid, very afraid of the ESPN the Magazine cover jinx. They need a good-luck charm. How about borrowing some horseshoes from Indianapolis? The Colts don’t need theirs anymore. Except maybe for Marvin Harrison.

January men

By Mike Batista
January 9, 2009

Ah, January Football. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin coined that term to refer to the NFL playoffs. He ought to license the term and rake in untold millions.

The Steelers wouldn’t be playing January Football without their accomplishments in September, October, November and December Football.

So let’s take a look at five twists and turns, one from each month, that shaped the 2008 regular season. There are two from November because the Steelers played five games in that month compared to four in September, three in October and four in December.

These aren’t routine plays. These are plays that no one could have seen coming, and all were turning points in those games as well as the season.

September 29 (Steelers 23, Ravens 20, OT): It looked like the Steelers were heading toward .500 territory. After starting 2-0, they lost the previous week to the Eagles and were down 13-3 to the Ravens in the third quarter. They scored their first touchdown in nine quarters to pull to within 13-10. On the first play of the Ravens’ ensuing possession, James Harrison strip-sacked Joe Flacco, and LaMarr Woodley recovered the fumble and returned it seven yards for a touchdown and a 17-13 Steelers lead. The Steelers didn’t trail again. If there was one play that saved the Steelers’ season, that was it. Instead of falling to 2-2, they started on a three-game winning streak that put them at 5-1.

October 26 (Giants 21, Steelers 14): The Steelers desperately clung to leads of 14-9 and 14-12 against the defending Super Bowl champions. Then with 7:21 left in the game, the Steelers had to punt from deep in their own end. James Harrison, replacing injured long snapper Greg Warren, snapped the ball out of the end zone for a safety, tying the game 14-14. The Giants took advantage of the good field position on the free kick to score the winning touchdown. This was the first of two losses in three games for the Steelers, their only real slump of the season.

November 3 (Steelers 23, Redskins 6): In the WTF moment of the year, the Steelers opened this Monday nighter with an onsides kick. The Redskins recovered and kicked a field goal. On the Steelers’ first possession, Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted at the Steelers’ 30, and the Redskins kicked another field goal. The Redskins didn’t score the rest of the way, but the Steelers mustered just a field goal in the first half until Andre Frazier, who was taken off the field on a stretcher five weeks earlier, blocked a punt late in the second quarter, giving the Steelers the ball at the Redskins’ 13. Roethlisberger eventually scored on a 1-yard sneak to give the Steelers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The Steelers closed out the first half of the season with a 6-2 record.

November 30 (Steelers 33, Patriots 10): The Steelers ate up seven minutes in the third quarter and took a 13-10 lead on Jeff Reed’s 25-yard field goal. Matthew Slater muffed the ensuing kickoff, giving the Steelers the ball at the Patriots’ 8. Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward for an 11-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers a 20-10 lead late in the third quarter. It was the first of five turnovers on five straight possessions for the Patriots, which allowed the Steelers to pile on more points. This was the Steelers’ first impressive road win that wasn’t subsequently devalued. The Jaguars and Redskins tanked after being beaten by the Steelers. But the Patriots didn’t lose again, which means the Steelers essentially eliminated the Patriots from the playoffs. With the Christmas season under way, the Steelers put to rest the Ghosts of Patriots Past with this win, and they cemented their status as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

December 7 (Steelers 20, Cowboys 13): Deshea Townsend’s interception return for the game-winning touchdown is the lasting memory from this game. But the Steelers don’t win it without Santonio Holmes’ 35-yard punt return to the Cowboys’ 25 with 8:42 left in the game. The Steelers trailed 13-3 and their offense had done squat the whole afternoon. Even after Holmes’ punt return, they only moved the ball two yards, but it was enough for Jeff Reed to kick a field goal to make it a one-possession game. The Steelers finally strung together a legitimate drive to tie it, then Townsend won it with his interception return. The Steelers again did serious damage to the playoff hopes of a team many picked to reach the Super Bowl. They also established their knack for fourth-quarter comebacks, which they used again to beat the Ravens the following week and clinch a first-round playoff bye.

I said THAT?

By Mike Batista
January 2, 2009

Now that 2008 is over, it’s time to take a look back. So here are my most accurate predictions of 2008. And I am quoting myself directly from my 2008 Predictions column.

I see the Steelers going 11-5 this season and winning the AFC North.

Turns out I sold the Steelers short. But that forecast looked pretty ballsy considering the general consensus was 10-6 or 9-7. By the way, the Steelers’ schedule was just about as tough as advertised. Their opponents’ combined 2007 winning percentage was .598. Their combined 2008 winning percentage was .548. They’re pretty much guaranteed to not have the toughest schedule in 2009. How do I know that? Because one of their opponents will be the Lions.

Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley will be household names far beyond the Western Pennsylvania hills by the end of the season.

Well, Woodley made the cover of Sports Illustrated. I’d say that equates to household name. Timmons won’t be on Letterman anytime soon, but he had 65 tackles, five sacks, a forced fumble and an interception he returned 89 yards to send fans flooding to the exits in Foxboro. Not bad.

I say the Patriots are still a 10-6 team without Brady.

Again, I was a win short. I wrote this after Brady got hurt in Week 1. I also said that Brady could move around with a cane and the Patriots would still get into the playoffs. His rehab didn’t progress quickly enough for him to play with a cane, so we’ll never know.

The Browns are an organization on the way up, but the rise will take a year off.

The “on the way up” part might be the only thing wrong with that one.

n n n

When judging my predicting prowess, please keep those three brilliant prognostications in mind as I ’fess up to some blunders.

The offensive line might not be much better than it was last season. But I think the minimal improvement there, combined with the increased power on offense, will allow the Steelers to put a lot of points on the board.

Woops! Instead, the Steelers scored 347 points, their fewest since 2003, when they went 6-10 and scored 300.

Despite all their problems, I still think the Jaguars are a little bit better than the Steelers, and I think this is the year they finally overtake the Colts and win the AFC South.

Well, the Colts’ five-year reign as AFC South champions did come to an end. It just wasn’t the Jaguars who unseated them. Instead of being “a little bit better” than the Steelers, the Jaguars turned out to be “a lot worse.” Not the same thing.

Let’s hope Rashard Mendenhall can learn to hang onto the football and be heard from by the end of the season.

Remember Rashard? He had a case of fumble-itis in the preseason. He learned how to hang onto the football, but he didn’t learn how to avoid Ray Lewis.

Super Bowl XLIII: Chargers 31, Saints 21 … Drew Brees will get a chance to prove that the Chargers kept the wrong quarterback.

Yeah, that’s a tough one. Brees against his old team. The lesson I learned there is to not be a sucker for a storyline.

n n n

So now that the playoff brackets are set, I’ll reset my prediction. I apologize to all my fellow Steelers fans, but I am morally obligated to stick to my guns on the Chargers winning it all, even though they’re a .500 team and LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates are hurting. I have them beating the Giants in the Super Bowl. Eli Manning losing to the team he thumbed his nose at in the 2004 draft. Like I said, I’m glad I learned my lesson on being a sucker for storylines.