There's certainly no need to worry about the Steelers coming out flat on Sunday night. It's actually rare when there are this many story lines about personal and team motivational factors -- reasons why the Steelers don't, and never did need the Jets to trash talk before this game. As if beating a team that beat you during the regular season and getting to advance to the Super Bowl aren't enough, it's probably safe to say the Jets were wise by not adding to what's already there.
A core group of this team got ring number one with Bill Cowher. Guys like Hines Ward, Chris Hoke, James Farrior, Brett Keisel, and even Antwaan Randle El are getting up there in age, without a doubt. But they're also looking at a big chance to get another ring and put a stamp on their careers. One more ring could be the difference when Hall of Fame balloting comes around. There's no way these guys aren't coming out and leaving everything on the field.
Few outside of Steeler fandom understand what a beast Aaron Smith is, and how important he's been to the defense for 11 seasons now. Sometimes when you look at the stat sheet, it's not that obvious. But when you see teams play with Smith in the game, you understand: They won't even run the ball in his direction. Maybe Keisel best summed up the respect the rest of the team has for Smith, saying, "If I could be like him and live my life like he lives his, I'd die a happy man."
This team is playing for Aaron Smith, so he can get one more chance to play in, and win, a Super Bowl.
The "Game Manager"
Yes, it's time to put that to rest once and for all, isn't it? Ben Roethlisberger can go from probably one of the lowest points of his career to one of the highest; all he needs to do is basically be himself. To some, it's been obvious for years... Big Ben is not just one of the best big game quarterbacks of his era, but of all time. But he 'doesn't have the stats' of 'elite' guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or even Philip Rivers. Too many people put an asterisk on Roethlisberger's career, and without anything to back it up. Well I'll back it up and kick that asterisk right on outta here- Roethlisberger is top ten in passer rating, top five in yards per attempt and top fifteen in completion percentage. Top five in winning percentage. Number two in playoff winning percentage. ALL TIME. He's an elite quarterback. Another Super Bowl makes him a permanent part of that discussion, and tells the naysayers to kiss his asterisk.
Mike Tomlin has nothing to prove to me, and probably to most people who might read this. He's faced adversity, he's been a consummate professional, and he's shown that he can gain the players' respect and keep them focused on the task at hand. But he also knows that too many people think he won Super Bowl XLIII with Cowher's team. Hell, he should be in strong consideration for Coach of the Year. Just like Big Ben, our coach knows what it means to not be mentioned in the same breath as the 'elites' -- coaches like Bill Belichik, Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden and say, Mike Holmgren. Ring number two is about respect.
What a rude awakening it will be to the rest of the NFL when they wake up after Super Bowl XLV and realize this team isn't 'old' like we've been hearing all year long. The Steelers' ability to evaluate talent not as pure talent, but as players who fit the system is arguably as good as any franchise has been in the last decade. The guys get in, learn the system, and start to contribute. In some cases, almost immediately. It helps, certainly, to have all those veterans with rings throughout the roster. But the development in the receiver corps with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders has been remarkable. Seeing those players perform in a playoff setting might have something to do with the mentoring of Hines and ARE, but it also speaks volumes about these players. They are not shrinking from the moment, and they want to show that they belong here.
Always disrespected, always acknowledged as the weak link for the Steelers, the front five have been doing whatever it takes. And sometimes too much. You pretty much get the gamut with this bunch -- the backups for backups, the All-Pro rookie Maurkice Pouncey, who is showing the rest of the league what the next ten years will look like, and the vet, Flozell Adams, seeking that last piece of hardware so he can call it a day (and we know he's literally willing to leave it all on the field). Some of these guys were on the team in 2008, so they've been down this road before. Winning it all makes the criticism moot.
Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison
He probably won't win it, but Deebo knows he should be in the mix. He might not be, because of the league's crackdown on all James Harrison-related hits, and that's why the man's got a huge chip on his shoulder right now. No matter what the rest of the team does, James Harrison will be a force throughout the remainder of these playoffs.
The New England Patriots. Blech. The second Steeler dynasty began in 2005. The real question is whether it's nearing the end or more like just in the middle somewhere. This is where we get the answer. Every current Steeler knows the legacy of the 70's Steelers -- the players on that team became household names, and many are enshrined in Canton. They will never be forgotten. A Super Bowl victory this year, in an era when free agency and the salary cap make it much more difficult to keep players around and sustain the excellence, puts this chapter in Steeler history right up there. Hines. Big Ben. Troy. Snack. Deebo. The list goes on, and you better believe there isn't a single player in the league who wouldn't want to have the accomplishment of playing on one of those revered -- and feared -- teams in the history of the NFL.
So like I said, don't worry! When it comes to motivation, the Steelers probably have more significant reasons to bring home the trophy than all the other teams combined.