“The thrill isn’t in the winning, it’s in the doing.” (Chuck Noll)
If you had taken a poll of NFL fans nationwide after the third quarter of Super Bowl 51, with the Atlanta Falcons leading the New England Patriots 28-9, not many would have picked the Pats to stage a miraculous, fourth-quarter surge to win the NFL championship. Likewise, In Super Bowl 43, with the Pittsburgh Steelers enjoying a 20-7 advantage over the Arizona Cardinals after three quarters, how many fans do you think would have predicted the Steelers would need to stage a desperate comeback at the end of the fourth quarter to claim the title on one of the greatest scoring plays in NFL history?
No matter which year or which league-champion you’re talking about, it takes much more than pure talent to hoist a Lombardi Trophy in triumph. The oblong shape of a football, by itself, dictates that nearly every game will have its share of weird bounces, turnovers and other variants of what used to spark former sportscaster Myron Cope into his celebrated, on-the-air histrionics. Then, of course, you’ve got the ever-present threat of untimely injuries to key players that can blow up an entire season (just ask the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers or Houston Texans about this one). Additionally, every team faces the ever-present vagaries of flags thrown (or not thrown) and official rulings which, as we saw quite recently, also can be decisive factors. Suffice to say that lots of crazy stuff happens on the gridiron in a typical week which is impossible to predict or guard against.
That’s why, if the Steelers are to reach their lofty goal in Minneapolis on February 4, 2018, they’ll not only need to play some excellent football in the weeks ahead, but they must also count on the good graces of Lady Luck. As things now stand, the Steelers are hoping the return of cornerback Joe Haden sparks a resurgence of their defense, which has been reeling since the season-ending injury to their linchpin, Ryan Shazier. On offense, the Black-and-gold needs the amazing Antonio Brown on the field (and at least in the neighborhood of 100 percent) when playoff football begins in January. At present, though, No. 84’s availability is hardly a sure thing.
Assuming these personnel issues pan out positively—and the Steelers enter the playoffs with nearly their full complement of players—the question of whether the AFC Championship Game is played at Heinz Field or elsewhere ought to be irrelevant. Why? Because if Pittsburgh earns the No. 1 seed and a rematch with New England, for example, the Patriots have never had trouble winning in the Steel City, posting a 5-1 record in their last six games at Heinz Field since 2005. Compared to their ugly 1-5 record versus New England since 2005, the Steelers are 5-3 in road playoff games during the same period.
Despite all of the hype surrounding the top seed, therefore, it hasn’t actually been a key factor for the Steelers during their past 12 seasons. What matters most is making it to the AFC Championship Game, and doing so with a healthy-enough roster to put your best foot forward on the field. In 2016, the Steelers were unable to accomplish this feat in Foxborough because of a key injury to Le’Veon Bell in the previous week’s 18-16 win over the Chiefs in Kansas City. We saw what a huge difference Bell’s presence made last Sunday, even though the game’s outcome was equally dismal.
As the Steelers prepare for a Texans team whose run of bad luck has been absolutely uncanny this season, let’s hope the Steelers are able to regain the momentum they had built up prior to the deflating (no pun intended, Tom Brady) loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. And let’s also knock on wood that they can do so without losing the services of any more key players.
But regardless of how the 2017 season pans out for the Black-and-gold when it wraps up business for another season, it’ll help the psyche of Steelers Nation to keep in mind that talent, effort and coaching will only take a team so far. In my book, the Steelers and their coaches have already proven their mettle this season beyond any reasonable doubt. But for a franchise whose reputation has been forged on the strength of incredible and unlikely plays such as Franco’s Immaculate Reception vs. the Oakland Raiders, Lynn Swann’s soaring catch vs. the Dallas Cowboys and Santonio Homes’ toe-tap catch in the corner of the end zone vs. the Arizona Cardinals—the Steelers and their loyal fans ought to recognize quite well that you also need the help of favorable planetary alignments if you expect to climb that highest mountain.
Coach Noll was a guy who enjoyed winning as much as anyone that ever coached the game. But he also recognized it’s the quest to reach this ultimate goal—plus all of the unlikely things that happen along the way—which represent the very heart of pro football’s appeal for players and fans alike. While we might not always appreciate this simple truth, it’s the reason why all of us keep coming back here every week.