There was a time, way back when I was a kid, that the thought of the Steelers winning one Super Bowl (forget about two) seemed about as abstract to me as traveling to Mars.
Even during the great era of the 90s and into the early 00s, when Pittsburgh was winning a lot, I just never had the confidence someone would step up and make a play in the biggest of games. Why? Because, somehow, someway, someone from my team wouldn't, while someone from the other team would.
After all, when a team goes 26 years without a championship, someone has to fail at least once a year for that to happen.
Thankfully, all my years of "suffering" (for lack of a better sports word) paid off in 2005, when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. Three years later, there they were again, hosting the Lombardi trophy after a thrilling victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Just two short years later, there was Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, up on a stage at Heinz Field, presenting another AFC trophy to a team and a fan base that was now used to making it to the Super Bowl.
It was a glorious era for the Steelers, but in order for so much hardware to be added to the trophy case on the South Side, many great players had to step up and make great plays at critical moments. Sure, there was some luck involved. After all, that line is often so fine in the modern NFL, a team needs a bounce here and there (or maybe a Mike Vanderjagt field goal attempt) to go its way along the journey. But, more often than not, it's the players of high pedigree that step up and make things happen. From Ben Roethlisberger to Troy Polamalu to Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, Joey Porter and James Harrison, someone must step up to make a key play at the most critical of times.
When that happens once, you feel lucky that you were able to witness it. When it happens over and over again, you begin to expect it.
In danger of losing to the Ravens at home in the AFC Championship Game? No problem. Polamalu saves the day with a 43 yard interception return for a touchdown to seal the deal.
Trailing to the Cinderella Cardinals in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLIII? No problem. Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes save their best stuff for the most important drive of the year and come through when it matters the most.
In danger of blowing a 24-0 lead to the Jets in the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field? No problem. Instead of being conservative with a run on third and six, just throw it to some little-used rookie receiver named Antonio Brown, whose clutch catch clinches a trip to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV.
From the moment Vanderjagt missed that kick in the divisional playoff game in Indianapoilis, to the moment Brown secured a third AFC title with his catch at Heinz Field, it seemed the Steelers could do no wrong in the big moments.
In Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, when Roethlisberger and the rest of Pittsburgh's offense took the field against the Packers' defense, trailing 31-25 with precious minutes remaining, did anyone have any doubt a repeat of XLIII was about to take place? I know I didn't.
In addition to the championship-clinching drive against Arizona, Roethlisberger had orchestrated many game-winning drives over his first seven seasons--including just a season earlier, with his 19 yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace on the final play of regulation that beat Green Bay at Heinz Field.
As Pittsburgh began this critical drive, my uncle's text said it all: "Ben with two minutes left." My thoughts exactly. There was no doubt he was going to get the job done. Unfortunately, as we all painfully found out, there would be no magic on this drive, as it seemed to fizzle out before it even got started.
Since then, more often than not, when the Steelers have found themselves in a critical moment, somehow, someway, someone from my team hasn't stepped up, while someone from the other team has.
Pittsburgh would have been the AFC's number one seed in 2011, if not for a game-winning drive pulled out by Joe Flacco and those hated Ravens in the waning seconds at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football. As a consequence, the Steelers were relegated to the fifth seed and had to travel to Denver to take on the Broncos, sans Ryan Clark.
Instead of playing like a veteran-laden championship team, Pittsburgh performs like a team that has run out of magic, and it's Tim Tebow and the rest of the 8-8 Broncos who come up with the big plays when it matters most in an overtime victory in a wildcard game.
A year later, the playoffs are Pittsburgh's to take. No problem, right? Wrong. Instead of saving his best for last, Roethlisberger throws key picks, late in consecutive losses to the Cowboys and Bengals that squanders any shot at another postseason run.
And in 2013, after a slow start, the playoffs somehow are still a very real possibility, even for the 5-7 Steelers. But instead of coming up with key plays at Heinz Field against visiting Miami, there goes Roethlisberger throwing a critical pick, Polamalu missing a key tackle or two, and Brown barely stepping out of bounds in a 34-28 loss.
Weeks later, after the Steelers barely miss the playoffs thanks to a loss by the Chiefs in San Diego, the first thing that comes to mind is, "Man, this team can't seem to catch a break."
Can you imagine that?
In less than three seasons, my favorite football team turned me from an overly-confident fan to one who has come to expect the worst.
I used to think of the playoffs as the norm for the Steelers, but it's been two seasons since their last appearance, and now the thought of January football feels kind of out of reach and abstract.
It's amazing how quickly things change.
Let's hope the confidence returns sooner rather than later.
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