Relishing the underdog role

You could feel the weight lifted off of Bill Cowher when the wise guys released their odds for Sunday's AFC Championship game.

As three-point underdogs at home against the New England Patriots, much of the pressure that should have been on the Steelers - losers of three AFC title games in four chances at home under Cowher - was lifted.

The lines-makers might have given Cowher exactly what he needs.

Cowher has proven over the years that he can stumble as a favorite. But make him an underdog and he does some of his best work.

Cowher, whose coaching skills are much more reliant on motivation than they are the Xs an Os of the game, will use that as a rallying cry for the Steelers.

The lack of respect is the same rallying cry the Patriots used in the 2001 AFC Championship game when they entered Heinz Field as nine-point underdogs and stunned the Steelers, 24-17. The Patriots would go on to upset the favored St. Louis Rams, 20-17, in the Super Bowl, the first of two championships they've celebrated in the past three seasons.

But what about New England's playoff victory the week before they upset the Steelers?

If the Steelers need any motivation in regards to rebounding from their sloppy play in Saturday's 20-17 overtime victory over the Jets, they need to look no further than New England's 16-13 overtime win over Oakland in the 2001 Divisional playoffs. In that game, quarterback Tom Brady, making his first playoff start after taking over for injured Drew Bledsoe midway through the season, had a mediocre game against the Raiders.

Playing in a driving snowstorm, Brady and the Patriots trailed 16-13 with 1:50 remaining in regulation when Brady was hit from behind and lost the ball with the Raiders recovering. But replay ruled Brady's arm was going forward - even though he had gone through the full throwing motion - but the Patriots kept the ball, going on to win the game in overtime.

Brady was 32-for-52 for 312 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in the game, not exactly sparkling numbers. And if officials would have ruled that one play a fumble, the legend of Brady and the Patriots would be vastly different.

Cowher can point to the similarities between the Steelers and that New England team.

Pittsburgh is coming off an overtime game in which rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - making his first playoff start - was shaky. And the Steelers would have lost if not for Jets kicker Doug Brien missing not one, but two makeable field goals in the final two minutes of regulation.

The Steelers have the opportunity to keep the Patriots from achieving the dynasty status three Super Bowls in four seasons brings.

And just as Cowher did an excellent job of motivating a team that was 6-10 a season ago to become the first team in AFC history to go 15-1, he does his best work when nothing is expected from him.

Steel City Insider Top Stories