AFC Championship: History might not mean much this time
PITTSBURGH – History tells us the Pittsburgh Steelers belong. The New York Jets? Not so much.
The 2010 season and playoffs, however, have written their own version of history, with a common theme: Anything can happen.
It already has to the Jets, who never had won in the Steel City before edging the Steelers 22-17 in December.
They also have humbled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the playoffs – who does that in consecutive weeks?
In a season when both conference title games feature No. 2 seeds and against No. 6s, it’s foolish to discount the Jets in Sunday night’s AFC championship.
A franchise that validated the AFL’s talents by winning the Super Bowl in 1969 has not been back since. The Jets played for the conference title in 1982, 1998 and last year. They hadn’t even won postseason games in consecutive years until doing so last season and this.
“It’s been a long time for our fans and our franchise,” said defensive end Shaun Ellis, a first-round pick in 2000 and the current player with the longest Jets career. “So for us to be able to get to that point – and not just get there, but get there and win it -would be huge for us.
Naturally, the Steelers say otherwise. Their time for AFC championship games has been frequent: this is No. 15 for Pittsburgh, with a 7-7 split thus far.
As for Super Bowls, no franchise owns more than Pittsburgh’s six Lombardi Trophies. The Steelers have won it twice in the last six years, after the 2005 and 2008 seasons.
They’re 4-point favorites, and part of the oddsmakers’ belief in them has to stem from their experience at this level.
“We have one standard,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “That standard is winning.”
Hines Ward has lived up to that standard for 13 seasons, easily the most as a Steeler on the current roster. He has been one of the franchise’s greatest postseason performers and was MVP of the 2006 Super Bowl.
He understands fully what has bred success in Pittsburgh, and will continue to do so after he is long gone.
“People try to compare this team to the Super Bowl teams we played on, but every team is different,” Ward said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys and a lot of battle-tested guys who have been there.
“What this team has that impresses me is the resiliency. To do it the way we have done it, not having Ben (Roethlisberger) for four games (while he was suspended), missing Troy (Polamalu) for two or three games, our offensive line getting hurt. It’s been remarkable to see the guys fill in.”
It’s the Steelers way.
“It starts up top,” Ward said of ownership, the front office and coaching staff. “The 53-man roster we pick in training camp, we always say it will come down to the guys we took back then. And it does.”
The Jets aren’t likely to be swayed by the Steelers’ resume of success. They weren’t intimidated by facing the Colts in Indy or the Patriots in Foxborough – not even with the fresh memory of being pummeled 45-3 at Gillette Stadium five weeks earlier.
If anything, the Jets should be brimming with confidence that they can match up well with Pittsburgh, get key contributions from their playmakers, and ride off with what truly would be their biggest victory since Joe Namath came through on his guarantee.
“We’ve talked about it quite a bit,” said veteran running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who was with San Diego for the 2007 AFC title game but barely played because of a left knee injury as the Chargers lost to the undefeated Patriots. Tomlinson joined the Jets this season.
“I think everybody understands where we are, and obviously it helps with those guys getting here last year and knowing that this doesn’t happen often and how special it is. You never know when you’re going to get the next opportunity and they can look at guys like myself and Jason Taylor, even Shaun Ellis, to see that.”
Asked what it would mean to walk off the field Sunday knowing he’s going to the Super Bowl – something so many Steelers are familiar with – the usually descriptive Tomlinson struggled.
“I don’t know if I can put into words, but I can definitely imagine the feeling,” he said. “Every year, you see a team that walks off that field in the AFC championship game going to the Super Bowl and you see the excitement on guys’ faces, the atmosphere, and just how proud guys are. I really can’t put it into words, I just know I have the vision of what it may feel like.”
In this strange season, LT and the Jets might get to experience it.