The AFC Championship was played in Pittsburgh in 22-degree weather. The NFC Championship was played in Phoenix in 78-degree weather. Such dichotomy is only the beginning of the differences between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.
NFL Football came to Pittsburgh in 1933. It arrived in Arizona in 1988 (though the Cardinal franchise was born before the Steelers came into existence). Naturally, the football tradition in Pittsburgh runs much deeper than in Phoenix, though you certainly cannot fault Arizona simply for being younger. True, the NFL had to extend the Blackout Rule due to the fact that the Cardinals did not pre-sell their first home playoff game. In Pittsburgh they can sell out any home playoff game three times over. But I guarantee you that in 1953, when the Steelers were 20-years old and with no winning tradition, tickets were not hard to come by.
Pittsburgh is a land of human exports. Arizona is a land of human imports. In the 1970s, when the steel mills and related industries collapsed, Pittsburgh began losing roughly half of its population. Pittsburghers needed to find jobs and greener pastures. Ironically, Arizona was one of the many destinies where Pittsburghers relocated. At about the same time, Phoenix and Tucson were exploding in population. The dry, warm weather attracted older people looking to retire. In turn, younger folks were attracted to the jobs and careers that were created to serve the new population. My parents, brother, sister and their families moved to Arizona in 1984, so I have spent considerable time there in the last 25 years watching it blossom. While Pittsburgh was being cut in half, Phoenix tripled. They were like two ships passing in the night.
From the Steelers perspective, Steeler Nation was created by the perfect storm. Just at the time when people were flocking out of Pittsburgh, the Steelers were in the process of winning four Super Bowls in six years. People may have left the Steel City en masse, but they took with them the pride of what is still considered the greatest dynasty in NFL history. When they settled, they became the preachers of that pride to others and also spread the Nation through their own procreation. Arizona, on the other hand, had nothing better to do (football-wise) prior to 1988 than root for the Dallas Cowboys. That was a reach that had neither depth nor passion. By the time the Cardinals hit Arizona, they were behind the Steelers in their own state in terms of fan base.
The last 20 years, since the Cardinals moved west, their football fortunes, compared to those of the Steelers, have also been on opposite ends of the spectrum. Arizona has been a losing franchise, having not gotten to any Conference Championship prior to this year. The Steelers have been a winning franchise during this time, having hosted a staggering 16 playoff games and playing in 10 more on the road and in Super Bowls.
All that said, it is easy to see that when the Steelers play on the road against a team like the Cardinals, or for that matter a Jacksonville, Atlanta, Houston or San Diego-type, the stadium will be filled with yellow towels waving proudly. It is the combination of Pittsburgh's perfect storm added to the undeveloped tradition of their opponents. Moreover, if you factor in the Steelers' recent success to an opposing team's lack thereof, you will see Terrible Towels dominating places like New York (Jets), Cincinnati, Detroit, etc. It is somewhat of a misnomer when you hear media and others proclaim that "Pittsburgh really travels well" upon viewing all the Steelers' fans in enemy stadiums. A great majority of those folks did not travel, they were already there.
To the contrary, our friends in Arizona have to deal with conflicting crowds every game. Most teams the Cardinals play east of the Rockies don't come to town very often, and when they do, the transplants from that city use the occasion to find tickets and wear opposing colors. Steeler Nation, upon first blush, may find that sacrilegious. But if we stop and think about it, we should empathize with true Cardinal fans who fight an uphill battle trying to establish tradition. Pittsburgh is the NFL's Diaspora. Phoenix, the antithesis, is the NFL's Ellis Island.
Yes, the Cardinals are in the midst of a massive bandwagon explosion. There's no other way to explain a team not pre-selling a home playoff game and then selling out the next game within minutes. People in Arizona aren't pulling out all their red gear this past week. They are going out and buying it for the first time. Compared to current Steeler Nation, this may seem shallow. But if you look historically, it wasn't until the Immaculate Reception, almost 40 years after the Steelers arrived in Pittsburgh, that people went out and bought black and gold. This year's playoff run for Arizona may well be the equivalent of our immaculate Reception, a rising of the Phoenix, pun intended.
Finally, and interestingly, the Steelers and Cardinals are opposite football teams as well. In January 2007, the Steelers brought in a defensive coordinator to be their head coach. He has helped make his team the best defensive club in football. In January 2007, the Cardinals brought in an offensive coordinator to be their head coach. He has helped make his team one of the most explosive offensive clubs in football. The irresistable force shall meet the immovable object. And while this year may be Arizona's breakout party, like our Immaculate Reception, Steelers' fans hope that the Cardinals fall just a bit short, like we did in 1972.