I walked up to the fourth floor court, locked-in for a playoff wiffle ball game last spring. You go up there to get away from the much more frequented gym and basketball courts on the lower floors, or to play collegiate intramural sports in my case. I opened the glass doors to some early hitting practice when my teammate shouted, "You smell that? It's the playoffs baby!" Although normally just a particularly cold part of the Health and Wellness Center, the court that day did have a different aroma. I can't describe it exactly, maybe it was just in my head, but the air was a lot crisper, untouched by the sweat and panting breaths that were about to envelope the room. It was the brewing tension between two teams knowing it was a a win-or-go-home scenario that you could have cut with a knife.
I'm sure this is how playoff football teams feel heading into Wild Card weekend, although intensified by thousands of screaming fans, future pay days, and the desire to be world champions. The playoff air though, is something the Pittsburgh Steelers plan to breathe in every year, and something Stillers Nation has come to expect. After being eliminated in last year's divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl 50 champion Denver Broncos, Lombardi Trophy aspirations began to stir. While absences from a concussed Antonio Brown and injured Le'veon Bell hindered our offensive production in that game, it was also clear our defense had some more construction to be done to it. The Steelers' first three draft picks cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis, and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave played early and often as the coaching staff looked to accelerate their learning curves. Burns got burned as experienced quarterbacks looked to roast the fresh meat out of the University of Miami. Unfortunately, some of those plays, like the Ravens' Mike Wallace's 94-yard slant route touchdown catch in Week 9, really stymied the Steelers chances of victory, and for several weeks in a row they struggled to find their footing. As the younger players were indoctrinated into Stillers football, learning the history and philosophy of our game, those splash plays have been gradually diminished, keeping the defense tenth in opponents points per game and allowing our offense to finish games off.
As dominant as the Stillers have been in December and January, sports pundits and Las Vegas betting booths are first favoring the Patriots, Falcons, Cowboys and Chiefs to win Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas. Since 2001, Tom Brady's rookie year, the Patriots have participated in ten AFC conference championships and four Super Bowl titles. They have been a fixture in playoff football and a thorn in the side of the Pittsburgh Steelers; the clear power of the NFL for the past two decades. After surviving the ridicule and consequences of Deflate Gate, the Patriots are 14-2 on the strength of Brady's 28 touchdowns and record-breaking 2 interceptions. Aside from the home-field advantage, in which New England is 15-3 at Gillette Stadium in the last fifteen years, the Patriots will be difficult to stop due to their well-oiled offensive and defensive machines. Brady is complemented by brusiing running back LeGarrette Blount who tallied a League-high 18 rushing touchdowns this season. Their defense on the other hand, ranks top three in rush yards allowed per game and first in points allowed per game with 15.6.
The Cowboys' season started out as a surprise--Tony Romo suffered another back injury and the rookie phenoms, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot, were performing like they'd been in the NFL for years. The only team to beat Dallas' rookie duo was the New York Football Giants who are also in the playoffs. My only question for America's Team is at what point do Prescott and Elliot hit that "rookie wall"? For as successful as their season has been, finishing 13-2 in the games they played, the Cowboys have yet to play the best defense in the NFC--the Seattle Seahawks. If both teams meet in the NFC Championship game, it will be interesting to see how a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back match up against the vaunted, Super Bowl winning Legion of Boom.
Much like the Steelers, the Green Bay Packers were in dire straits near the halfway point of the season. Starting the season 4-6, Green Bay went on to finish their regular season on a six-game winning streak, clinching their division championship over the wild card-bound Detroit Lions in the final week of the season. Any time Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has the ball, their team is a threat to score. Having three receivers in Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb who have hauled in a collective 30 touchdowns creates a vertical game that defenses will struggle to adjust to. Green Bay's defense, which ranks 21st or lower in points allowed per game and yards allowed per game, will be its weak point the deeper in the playoffs they go.
On a seven-game winning streak, with an offense scoring at-will and a defense rounding into postseason form, the Pittsburgh Stillers are still being overlooked. And that's fine. That's how we like it; we've won the world championship before as underdogs. Remember when Jerome Bettis fumbled on the two yard line of the Indianapolis Colts in 2005? No? That's because Ben Roethlisberger, then in his second year, tackled defensive back Nick Harper, keeping the Colts from taking a late-game lead in the Divisional round, consequently sending us to Denver where we won the AFC title. That year, Super Bowl XL, was the first year in NFL history in which a six-seeded team won all four playoff games. Nobody saw the Stillers coming then, but we did it for The Bus.
If I'm any other team in the AFC, I'm scared to play the Stillers. For one, the Stillers are playing alongside a motivational figure, hungry to leave the game atop the mountain. "Silverback" James Harrison, probably the most feared player in the league--still--has made it known that at thirty-eight years old this may be his final season. leading the team this season in sacks and surpassing Jason Gildon as Pittsburgh's all-time sack leader, Harrison has been nstrumental in turning the tide of the Steelers defense. Young players on the roster got a glimpse of the amount of energy and time it takes to perform in the NFL at an elite level by watching Harrison hurling weights across the room; they want to win for him. Other veteran leaders who have won super bowls with Harrison, like Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker Lawrence Timmons, want to be in Houston this year because they are not done cementing their legacies. In speaking to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler on how he cut out fast food from his diet, Timmons spoke about hit legacy saying, "You can't be any other NFL linebacker when you're a Pittsburgh Steeler. I feel I'm an unfinished product."
Moreover, the Steelers are dangerous because they have the most potent offensive weapons at wide-receiver and running back in Antonio Brown and Le'veon Bell respectively. Despite moments of discontinuity for the Pittsburgh offense, there was never a moment when Brown and Bell were not a threat to score. AB84 found himself double and triple-teamed from start to finish of the season, while players such as Vontaze Burfict have maliciously hit Bell with the intent to injure. Yet, in the last four years, Anotnio Brown has amassed 480 receptions, the most in NFL history over that time span, surpassing the great Marvin Harrison. Le'veon Bell set his own league record this year, too, becoming the first player to average at least 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in a season. Stillers fans have such a luxury watching the tandem that it's surreal how easily Ben and the offense moves the ball. Beyond their skill-set, these stars know the only way to cement their legacy is with a Super Bowl championship; they know it and they are hungry for it. Antonio Brown's extension into the end-zone on Christmas Day is a perfect example of that hunger--recoiled short of the goal line with seconds left on the clock to pop back up and fight through Ravens defenders--he simply wanted it more. That 'bend don't break' attitude has been echoed throughout the Steelers locker room all season. The faith this football family has in one another and their expectation to be at Super Bowl LI in February are reasons why potential playoff games at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, the loudest stadium in the NFL, and Gillette Stadium do not seem so daunting. "The standard is the standard," as Mike Tomlin would say. It's the postseason and the Stillers are in the hunt. Here we go.