Steelers vs. Cowboys: Dallas represents both fire and ice for Pittsburgh since 2008

Al Bello

Dallas obviously has historical ties to the Steelers, but their team and their stadium bring back both hot and icy memories for Pittsburgh since 2008.

I remember Cowboys Stadium covered in ice.

Looked a lot like where I live, and it's sometimes hard to remember not everywhere else in the country looks like Hoth in February.

Despite that, it looked unusual. The Steelers were in the Super Bowl, facing the surging Green Bay Packers, and the AFC Championship win over the Jets was much like the divisional win over the Ravens.

One great half of football overcame one bad half of football.

The Steelers were down 21-7 to Baltimore at halftime, and powered through the Ravens on the strength of James Harrison and a few Joe Flacco turnovers. Pittsburgh ran over the Jets in the first half behind Rashard Mendenhall and a huge sack and forced fumble by Ike Taylor and the subsequent touchdown off the fumble recovery by William Gay.

Maurkice Pouncey went down in the first half, and the Steelers weren't running as well in the second half. The Jets clawed their way back into it, but not enough to pull off a dramatic comeback victory.

It's not that I felt any less confident in the Steelers, that team just didn't have the same level of consistency its Super Bowl champion counterpart did in 2008.

Much of that stemmed from the last time the Steelers played the Cowboys.

A similarly painful winter storm hit the area in which I live before the Steelers and Cowboys kicked off at Heinz Field. Not related, but the Steelers found themselves on the wrong side of another Tale of Two Halves kind of game. They trailed the Cowboys by 10 points in the fourth quarter despite forcing four Cowboys turnovers in the first half. Dallas stuffed Gary Russell on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line, and they began celebrating madly.

They were in position to pull off a huge road victory; knocking off the 10-2 Steelers in Pittsburgh would have pushed them to 9-4.

That Steelers team was good; their typically outstanding defense was the best in football, and their offense had weapons at its disposal. But the defining characteristic of that team was its grit. As cliche as it is to suggest, they willed their way into several wins that year.

Games like that Week 14 win over the Cowboys were perhaps at the top of a list of grittiest wins in 2008.

The Steelers rattled off 13 4th quarter points, the final seven coming off a Deshea Townsend interception return touchdown off Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. It legitimized the Steelers' assertion it's a title contender, even if the following week's win over Baltimore overshadowed it, and a crushing defeat at Tennessee in Week 16 pushed them down a peg.

They melted the ice covering them several times that year. The proverbial fire defeated that ice that year.

They'd go on to win the Super Bowl and it showed the Steelers as the quintessential "sum of its whole is greater than the sum of its parts" team. It can be traced directly back to that win over the Cowboys.

Dallas had the ball with the game on the line, tied at 13 with under two minutes to play. The familiar pangs of anxiety overtook all those watching, wondering if the Steelers were going to get that big defensive play.

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten ran the wrong route on a second-and-8 pass. Townsend was there for the pick, and outran Dallas's offense to the pylon for the score. The pick six came just two plays after Ben Roethlisberger had hit Heath Miller (who apparently ran the correct route) for a six yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 13.

Just like that, a game Dallas had all but won through the first 58 minutes of play turned into a loss. It turned the Steelers defense into an offense. The following week, the Steelers got interceptions from William Gay and Ryan Clark, and held Flacco to a 39.2 completion percentage in a 13-9 win.

The AFC Championship game was even more dramatic. The Steelers would harass Flacco in what had to be the most physical game since the league implemented rules to boost offense in the 1980s. Polamalu wold pick Flacco off and run it back for the game-ending touchdown.

James Harrison would take a Kurt Warner pass into the end zone all the way back for a touchdown at the end of the first half in the Super Bowl.

It all started off Townsend's interception. The defense was plenty confident all year, having prevented opposing offenses from gaining 300 yards just once in the regular season. But it became lethal after Townsend's pylon dive against Dallas.

That defense died off in 2009. But it came back even more powerfully in 2010. Behind its strength, it started the 2010 season 3-1 despite the absence of Roethlisberger. The Ravens had all but won the second meeting between those teams. Then Polamalu went unblocked, and he tomahawked the ball from Flacco in the fourth quarter. LaMarr Woodley recovered it and rumbled inside the 20. Roethlisberger would hit Isaac Redman for one of the more memorable touchdown catch-and-runs in recent memory, stealing a 13-9 win.

Those big defensive plays were there all season, but it always seemed like the team needed them more than what would be comfortable. Down 21-7 to Baltimore, they needed Harrison to destroy anything the Ravens threw at him in the second half (three sacks, two QB hits). The Steelers' offense responded, pulling out a 31-24 win.

The defense got the big play against the Jets - Taylor swatted Mark Sanchez's arm, and Gay's touchdown put them up 24-0 in the second quarter.

Then it went silent. The Jets battled back, and Roethlisberger backyarded his way from third down completion to third down completion. They were able to kneel it out, having failed to score in the second half.

The Steelers were white-hot in the first half, but the ice won the second half. That ice followed them to Dallas, an area perhaps still bitter from Townsend's touchdown two years earlier. The ice covered the stadium, and covered the Steelers in the first half.

Trailing 21-3 at one point, Green Bay made every play; the Steelers made none.

A gallant comeback effort in the fourth quarter was put up, but as Steeler Nation turned its collective head toward their heroes - the defense - to make a big play, it wasn't there. It didn't come. They did enough to slow down Green Bay's offense (a unit that looked like it could score from 200 yards out in that game), but in the fourth quarter, trailing 28-25, the defense failed to make that play.

They held the Packers to a field goal, and the flummoxed offense seemed to wilt under the situation, going nowhere on their final drive.

It seems like Taylor's sack and Gay's touchdown was the last big play this defense made. While that's obviously not true, it makes Townsend's touchdown stand out even more. It melted the ice that was forming around the team. It fended off a potential loss.

Since Townsend's interception, the Steelers are 48-23, but those big plays - however you want to define them - have happened less frequently. The Steelers have 18 interceptions in 2011 and 2012 combined, meaning they need three more to equal their 2010 total (21). And interceptions from cornerbacks? It's less than an afterthought.

The ice has taken over.

Townsend is probably too busy in his job as an assistant secondary coach under former Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton in Arizona to notice the Steelers game in Dallas today. But he no doubt remembers his biggest career moment, that icy Sunday in 2008.

The Cowboys and Cowboys Stadium represents two defining points in recent Steelers history - both hot and cold. The ice appears to be winning right now, staring at 7-6 with a non-playmaking defense going against one of the best passing teams in football.

Will someone bring the heat today? That's unclear, but it sure would be nice.


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