Wednesday Apple Pie

We've been here before, haven't we? Yes we have, and I have no wish to rehash the past. And all Steeler fans should focus on this way of thinking. Bill Cowher's only specific reference to the 2001 AFC Championship game was about Troy Brown, "Troy's a great athlete. He's another guy that this time of year you'd better be aware of. They've got him back there now returning punts. We don't have to re-hash. I know what happened three years ago so you don't have to ask me. I know about it."

Based on those words, Cowher is well aware of his past failures in the AFC Championship games but would rather focus on the now and that is probably what he's instilled in his players. There are more than a handful of players who remember the 2001 AFC Championship game loss. There is only one who remembers the 1997 AFC Championship Game and in fact there is one who remembers the 1995 AFC Championship Game.

But, Bill Cowher remembers them all. He remembers the three yards he needed against San Diego in the 1994 AFC Championship game. He remembers his daughter telling him that John L. Williams would have gotten him the three yards. He remembers the Steelers leading 10 - 3 at halftime only to have a blown coverage on Alfred Papunu bring the Chargers dangerously close to striking distance 13 - 10.

Cowher remembers the tortured redemption of the 1995 AFC Championship Game. The first possession Neil O'Donnell interception that would be a harbinger of things to come in the Super Bowl. He remembers the officials failing to recognize Kordell Stewart running out of bounds in the back of the end zone before scoring a go-ahead touchdown to the end the half. If he watched the NBC coverage of the game he would have been stunned by the cruel irony of a commercial replaying the Stan Humphries game-winning bomb preceding a Jim Harbaugh bomb to take the lead almost exactly from the same position on the field.

Cowher remembers the thousands upon thousands of terrible towels waving as Jerome Bettis put the Steelers up 14 - 7 over the Denver Broncos in the 1997 AFC Championship game. He remembers Kordell Stewart getting greedy and throwing an interception into triple coverage in the end zone. He remembers the Broncos scoring 17 points to end the second quarter. He remembers the Steelers marching right down the field to open the second half on the wheels of Jerome Bettis only to have Chan Gailey call a Kordell Stewart pass from the Steeler 5. He remembers the interception that ended the drive. He remembers John Elway completing a 3rd down and 4 to Shannon Sharpe in front of Jason Gildon to seal the game. He remembers that if Norm Johnson had only converted the early field goal off of a Levon Kirkland interception, then the game would have been tied.

Cowher remembers rushing Jerome Bettis back into a lineup that had grown used to playing without him in the 2001 AFC Championship game. He remembers an early Bill Belichick challenge that nullified a spectacular Hines Ward catch. He remembers Troy Brown going untouched up the middle on a punt return. He remembers Plaxico Burress disappearing. He remembers the Steelers knocking out Tom Brady. He remembers Drew Bledsoe's one extended drive of the game ending in a touchdown. He remembers the Patriots blocking a field goal for a touchdown. He remembers two Steeler touchdowns in 4 minutes in the 3rd quarter. He remembers Kordell Stewart throwing an interception. He remembers Adam Vinatieri missing a field goal. He remembers Kordell Stewart throwing a third interception.

But, don't expect him not to focus on those memories. Those painful memories. Those same memories that I said I wouldn't rehash, but couldn't help writing about. Therefore, it's impossible to expect Cowher to just forget and not have those memories creep into his mind this week.

What memories will this Sunday's classic match-up bring? Will we be packing away our towels? Or will we be making plane reservations for Jacksonville? In my Championship mini-previews, I predicted the winner. But, don't take my word for it. I'm only 2 - 2 in the predictions.

Next week in this same column, I will print the journal that I will keep during the game on Sunday, so that no matter what memories we take from this game, they will never be forgotten.

The Championships

NFC Championship Game
#2 Atlanta Falcons at #1 Philadelphia Eagles
3:30 PM, Sunday on FOX
Lincoln Financial Field
Weather Watch: Chance of a few snow showers. Highs in the low 30s and lows in the upper teens.
Announcing Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth, Pam Oliver (sideline reporter), Chris Myers (sideline reporter)

Falcons win the game if – Michael Vick is allowed to control the game with his feet. The last thing the Eagles need is to be chasing Vick all day while getting slammed by T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn.

Eagles win the game if – Much like the above note, the Eagles must force Vick to win the game with his arm. That means jumping out to an early lead and forcing the Falcons to play catch up.

Outlook: Could the Eagles really lose 4 championship games in a row at home? Does anyone really think Michael Vick can run for mega-yardage against the Eagles? I would say yes to both. But, the Eagles will overcome their demons and at least make it to the Super Bowl. Michael Vick is still a year or three away from being good enough to get his team to the final game. Eagles by 10.

AFC Championship Game
#2 New England Patriots at #1 Pittsburgh Steelers
6:30 PM, Sunday on CBS
Heinz Field
Weather Watch: A few snow showers. Highs in the upper 20s and lows in the low 20s.
Announcing Team: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein (sideline reporter), Armen Keteyian (sideline reporter)

Patriots win the game if – They win the battle of turnovers. In their first meeting with the Steelers, the Patriots fell behind early because of three first half turnovers. Kevin Faulk's fumble to start the second half sealed the game. The Patriots typically don't kill themselves and don't expect them to start this Sunday.

Steelers win the game if – Ben Roethlisberger stays patient going through his progressions. Big Ben last week tended to commit to one guy based on his overzealous confidence. However, this week he will need to be much smarter with his decisions and allow for short gains off of play-action.

Outlook: Sunday will be all about teams exorcizing demons. In this game, a game in which no one in America will give the Steelers a chance to win, a few things will become apparent. The Steelers, unlike years past, will lead the charmed life. Instead of the Steelers facing sentimental favorite John Elway, the Patriots face sentimental favorite Jerome Bettis. Instead of the Steelers facing a playoff-inexperienced quarterback who gutted out a sub-par performance in the divisional round in Tom Brady, the Patriots face Big Ben, and everyone knows his story. The Patriots are the only team to come into Heinz Field and score first, but that didn't matter last time and it won't matter again this time. The Turnpike Bowl will become a reality. On a side note, I've picked against the Steelers in only one championship game during the Bill Cowher era and that was against Denver. Steelers by 3.


  • You are going to hear a ton of idiots in the national media jumping on the Patriot bandwagon a week after they picked the Colts to go all the way (insert Woody Paige joke here). As Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post explained, there are three reasons: rookie quarterback who looked rusty, the Bill Belichick factor, and overreacting. It's the "overreacting" issue that should be scrutinized by every Steeler fan. This game is a "push" by any fan that truly understands football.
  • It's a war of mind games this week. The odds-makers have given the Patriots the edge and the Patriots are scrambling to become the underdogs again. Willie McGinest didn't give anything but a cult-like monotone answer to Dan Patrick when asked about the game this weekend. Take this to the bank: the Patriots don't want to be the favorites in this game and will do everything in their power to change the public perception. Perhaps they should hire Karl Rove.
  • Sean Salisbury tries way too hard to look smart.
  • Hey Bill Simmons, how much more respect could your Patriots be getting? They are favorites on the road against a team with a better record that destroyed them during the season.
  • Ken Whisenhunt better learn pretty quickly that he can't put Big Ben in the position to force balls to Plaxico Burress. I understand that it is important to get to Burress early, but if I'm Whisenhunt I stick to an offensive game plan that spreads the ball out to every offensive player. That includes tight ends and fullbacks.
  • I'd also sit Burress down and explain that for the betterment of the team he won't get the call early in the game but will be more of a decoy, especially on play-action. Burress' big moments will come, but he's going to have to be patient.
  • Anyone notice how they didn't use the tight ends and fullback and used only one running play to Verron Haynes out of the shotgun? Don't expect that trend to continue this week.
  • Jerome Bettis knows this is his last chance at a Super Bowl ring. Expect him to run harder than he ever has in his life. Expect 100 yards out of him. Expect at least two touchdowns out of him. And when the Steelers need to run out the clock, expect him to be knocking over Patriot defenders. This is his moment. He knows it. "It is the most urgent thing possible," he said of Sunday's game. "When you get up there in terms of age and experience, every opportunity could be your last. I'm treating this as if it is my last opportunity to reach the pinnacle. So, it is that much more important and it is that much scarier in the same breath."

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