The black and gold ran off eight straight victories en route to their fifth world championship. They marched into Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver to become the first team in NFL history to win all their playoff games on the road and win the Super Bowl. Jerome Bettis rode off into the sunset a consummate winner with his legacy firmly embedded in the annals of Pittsburgh football history. This year they have started 2-6 and the blank stares around the locker room after the Denver game said it all - this team is lost. Clearly, it cannot be because Bettis and his 368 yards rushing are gone - or maybe it can.
Teams need something to hold on to when the pressure of the late season turns up. The games get closer, the crowds get louder and the knees get weaker. Last year, the Steelers held onto the thought that their leader, Bettis, needed a ring before he left the game.
At times, they looked like a team possessed or, as much as I hate the phrase, a team of destiny. There was an aura about them and it went well beyond what happened on the field, but rather what went on in the mind. Before Pittsburgh, there was New England and Tom Brady. When the game got close, the Patriots knew that the golden arm would get them a W.
Brady and the Pats made so many big plays down the stretch that, as an opponent you almost felt defeated before the clock his zero. The two other teams to win Super Bowls in this millennium, the Bucs and Ravens, relied on menacing, tenacious defenses to get them through the big games. The one thing that all of these teams had in common was an identity.
Last season, even as the Broncos were on an impressive win streak, there was just no trademark. Jake Plummer mistake-free ballgames were more of a window dressing than a house foundation - it was only a matter of time before the big bad wolf blew that thing down.
The running game was there, but there was no workhorse. Ron Dayne, Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell are not exactly players that will have statues erected in their honor. The defense was good, but not great and made some plays. However, they were not the type of unit that brings home a parade in February.
Basically, last years' team had a formidable body built around an empty shell where the heart should be. Not saying that the team did not have "heart" per se. However, the team did not have the thing that pumps blood into every theoretical limb and organ. Bettis, Ray Lewis, Brady - these were all guys that infected their teams with their desire and it translated into Super Bowls.
The Broncos have searched for this identity since #7 left. Running back by committees and Brian Grieses were not what was going to bring this team to the Super Bowl. There was nothing there. No uniformed mindset that brought all 52 players to the same mental plane.
Temporarily, coach Mike Shanahan must have enjoyed it. He did not necessarily enjoy the losing, but he finally had an opportunity to showcase his game planning and personnel skill sets. He kept Denver in a lot of games with his mind, but on the field, there were still way too many losses.
Then came along Clinton Portis and all seemed right again. The running game was clicking, the wins were piling up, and the playoffs were on the horizon once again. However, you just knew once he put that championship belt around his waist during the waning moments of the game in Arrowhead, that he was gone.
Shanahan does not like players that are above the team, no matter what they bring in physical skills. That is what has been so hard about the years post-Elway. He has been looking for players with all the skill but none of the antics. Obviously, in today's game this is a rarity. Bye-Bye Portis. So long, Lelie. Adios, T.O talk. We will take a rain check, high pick running backs. Hello, Champ Bailey. Greetings, Mr. Javon Walker.
Welcome to the 2006 Denver Broncos, a team that is slowly shaping its own state of mind. Early in the season it was the defense. Nicknames were flying about and lofty comparisons being made. Then the Indy game happened and question marks were lingering towards the forefront and into the players' heads. The defense had been torched and the identity of "defensive powerhouse" was stripped.
For one week many, including myself, wondered where exactly this team was headed. Then along came the game last week against the aforementioned Pittsburgh Steelers. A game that hopefully will serve as the springboard for the late season run.
Champ Bailey interceptions. Javon Walker touchdowns. These are the things that we will remember about the Pittsburgh game as the weeks go on. Sure, there was a lot that happened in between, but those were the breadwinners. What was nice about the Walker touchdowns was that there was no napping on the ball or yapping into the camera and definitely no championship belts being sported on the sidelines.
Javon scored with a humbleness, just the way Shanahan likes it. Champ proved again that any quarterback throwing to his side is taking a monumental risk. Sure, you can throw to the other side all day (a la Manning) but that offensive game plan already lets your #1 reciever know that he is out of the game. Try finding me five #1 wide "redivas" that will be OK with that type of an approach. For once, since the 90s (so long ago), the Broncos have players to watch on both sides of the ball. Players who, hopefully, can be the heart of this team.
Tom Brady game winning drives, Jerome Bettis' firey sideline rants, the Ravens' vicious sacks. Walker and Bailey highlights? Not sure if the last one fits in there yet, but perhaps as the juice is turned up during the home stretch this year, the 2006 Broncos will find a way to put an identity stamp on this season. Just maybe that stamp will be in the likeness of Champ and Javon.