A year ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were coming off a 15-1 regular season with a rookie quarterback who had suddenly, improbably become a star. They seemed destined to get a chance to try to win the fifth Super Bowl title in franchise history, which would be their first since the 1979 season.
Until, that is, the New England Patriots came into Heinz Field and ended that notion in the AFC championship game.
This season, it was all the Steelers could do to make it to the playoffs. After an 11-5 regular season, Pittsburgh was the sixth seed, and no sixth seed had advanced to the Super Bowl since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990.
"We were 15-1 last year," wide receiver Hines Ward said Sunday. "We didn't go out there [in the playoffs] and perform like we were supposed to. This year, there was no expectation. We were the sixth seed. Nobody expected much out of us. Going to Cincinnati, going to Indy . . . so there was more pressure on them than us."
Feeling little pressure, the Steelers advanced to their sixth Super Bowl, on Feb. 5 in Detroit, after beating the Denver Broncos, 34-17, in the AFC title game Sunday in Denver. "No question, I think it's a lot easier when there's no expectations," running back Jerome Bettis said. "We know what that feels like to have that pressure on you and we came out and said, 'Hey, it's us against everybody.' Nobody expects us to win, nobody is picking us to win, and that's fine. As long as we believe it and the coaches give us a great game plan, we'll execute it and come out on top."
The Steelers also used playing on the road to their advantage.
"It's been incredible," Bettis said. "That's been fueling our fire to hear that crowd. Everybody is saying [that Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High] is the loudest outdoor stadium so they're going to get a little different. We're thinking, okay, all right, that's great. The first quarter, loud. Second quarter, a little louder, third quarter a little louder, and fourth quarter, can't really hear them. We take pride in that."
Pittsburgh's Terrible Towel-waving fans always have been known to make their presence felt in opposing stadiums, including Sunday in Denver, and the Steelers figure to have something of a home-field advantage at the Super Bowl in Detroit, as well, because of the sentimental support in the stadium for the 33-year-old Bettis, a Detroit native who may be playing in his final game.
"I don't know," Bettis said when asked if the Super Bowl would be his last game. "The last thing I want to do is diminish anything by even thinking about that. This is an incredible opportunity we have, so I'm going to wait until after the Super Bowl and think about it."
While the Steelers have been motivated all year to get Bettis back home for the Super Bowl, many also said they were well aware of Coach Bill Cowher's 1-4 record in AFC title games before Sunday's win, with all four losses coming at home.
"He's been criticized for not being able to win the big one and not being able to get back to the Super Bowl," Bettis said. "That was a thought for us, too. We wanted to come out and play for him. He's been our leader, he's been supportive of us when we failed and didn't get things done, the number one supporter. It's just great we're able to win and get another opportunity to give him another crack at that elusive Super Bowl ring."
Cowher said Sunday that "it hasn't gnawed at me. I can't do anything about it. You can say anything you want about me and the failures I've had. That's fine. I understand it's part of this business. I just try to seize each year and take each game and this group of guys and make them as good as they can be."