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Steelers believe they've learned



Published: Sat, January 8, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Past playoff failures have hardened the team's preparations.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have everything going for them as they await their second-round NFL playoff opponent. They have momentum, confidence, victories over the powerhouse Patriots and Eagles and one of the best records in NFL history.

This, too: The only rookie quarterback in league history to go unbeaten for an entire season as his team's primary starter.

They've even got a renovated Bus to carry them over any speed bumps that might arise in the playoffs, where coincidental good luck may be on their side, too. After all, this is the 25th anniversary of their 1970s dynasty's fourth and final Super Bowl championship.

Yet while it might seem the Steelers (15-1) are on the fast lane to the fifth ring they've chased since Terry Bradshaw still was their quarterback, they have been down this road before.

It may have traveled through the middle of Pittsburgh, but it didn't lead to the Super Bowl.

"We can't lose sight of how we got here," coach Bill Cowher said.

Or, perhaps, of how many times they've been detoured.

Zero-for-four

Four times since Cowher's first season as coach in 1992, the Steelers also owned a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs -- after the 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2001 seasons. Not once did they reach the Super Bowl.

They got there after the 1995 season as a lower-seeded team, but have lost three of the four AFC championship games played in Pittsburgh in the last 10 years. The most recent loss came three years ago, when New England turned two Steelers special teams breakdowns into a 24-17 upset.

It's not as if 2001 has become a rallying cry in the Steelers' filled-with-confidence locker room, but wide receiver Hines Ward and running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis said it's kept their minds on the challenge at hand.

So should this fact: Only two of the 14 top-seeded AFC teams since 1990 have won the Super Bowl: Denver (1998 season) and New England (last season).

"You appreciate it now because you know how hard it is to go through a whole year and get home field advantage, to get the bye week," Ward said. "We learned a lot from that 2001 team. In 2001, we were just living the moment. We didn't know the magnitude of the playoffs then."

A few locker stalls down, Plaxico Burress was saying much the same thing.

"When things like that happen to you, it kind of wakes you up," he said. "It sends the antenna up, that you don't want anything like that to ever happen again. We were just out there playing football, not really realizing the opportunity we had."

Veteran leadership

If any of the younger Steelers want to know about squandered opportunities, they should wander over to cornerback Willie Williams' locker.

He can tell them how a Three Rivers Stadium meeting room shook with loud music during an ill-advised rehearsal for a Super Bowl rap video before the AFC title game against San Diego in January 1995. Final score: Chargers 17, Steelers 13.

The Patriots were similarly energized three years ago upon learning the Steelers briefly discussed Super Bowl logistics before playing them.

"I don't see us doing that," Burress said, referring to any possible playoff missteps. "I see us being focused on the things we have to do. We have more mature guys, a lot of veteran guys, than there were in 2001."

Twenty Steelers, plus two on the injured reserve list, remain from the 2001 team. To the Steelers, that's 22 good reasons why they should wend their way through a competitive AFC field and make it to Jacksonville, where they won a regular season game only last month.

"We never have taken anything for granted," Cowher said. "It has been a very unselfish team and we have an identity that we are going to enter the playoffs with. We are going to focus on the next game, because that is how we got here."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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