And then the AFC had two. Not the two the world was expecting, but the two that ultimately earned the right to contend in Super Bowl XLV.
The glory of the 20 or so hours when it appeared that the Steelers would travel to Foxboro to take on the then invincible New England Patriots was that the story would write itself.
With almost a decade elapsed since the day when the upstart New England Patriots waltzed into Heinz Field to upset the Steelers, it was to be time for the Steelers to turn the tables.
The New York Jets beat them to the punch.
And that in and of itself makes them dangerous. Oh, that and the fact that they out foxed the Steelers on this same field less than one month ago.
Fate has given the Steelers a second chance. Let’s take a look at what they must do to take advantage.
Stop the Screw Ups on Special Teams
The stunning reversal on special teams provided one of many sub-plots of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Al Everest’s arrival last January appeared to continue the Steelers habit of alternating good and bad special teams coaches. Big play early by the special teams ultimately provided the margin of victory in games that went to the wire against the Titans and the Bengals.
All of that came crashing down as the Steelers let the Jets take the opening kickoff 97 yards to the house.
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be an aberration, as the Steelers gave up a long return against the Ravens last week, and only an iffy holding call prevented the punt coverage until giving up its first TD.
No magic formula exists. Injuries would not serve as excuses, even if they were at issue, which they’re not.
The formula is simple.
The Steelers special teams must step up.
Steelers Need to Stay Smart
Steelers-Ravens games come down to a series of tests. Tests of will, tests of endurance, and ultimately tests of whose tougher.
The Jets pose a different problem.
Make no mistake, Rex Ryan was the Ravens defensive coordinator, and the Jets certainly not any sort of “finesse” team. The Steelers, of course, must win the physical match ups.
Most post-game analysis of the Steelers loss to the Jets focues on the opening kick return and the safety that spotted New York nine points.
No argument there.
But on three key plays, the Jets outfoxed the Steelers, via play fakes and direct snaps. If the Steelers don’t get caught on those plays, then they negate the other errors and win the game.
Last week against the Patriots, Rex Ryan activated 11 defensive backs, leading to the conventional wisdom that if it worked against Tom Brady, it will work against Roethlisberger.
Potentially it could, but not if the Steelers play smart. Afterall, Brady, and his cohort Peyton Manning, are accustomed to precision passing with receivers running routes with near mechanical meticulousness.
Ben Roethlisberger, in contrast, is accustomed to pressure, and excels at improvising on the fly.
Keep Doing What They Do
The highlight reels of the Steelers victory over the Ravens were filled with visions of Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Clark, and James Harrison doing what they have always done – make plays in the clutch.
But the reels also contained contributions from new faces like Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, and Ziggy Hood.
And so it must continue this week.
This may appear like an oversimplified analysis, but no magic formula exists. Veterans and young players must continue to step up, and everyone must be alert, attentive, and at the top of their game.