Imagine, for a minute, life as a Detroit Lions fan: You play meaningless games for seasons on end. And no one ever retires the right way. There is no honor, only curt retirement notices, as in Barry Sanders. So as they are losing and playing meaningless games, there isn't even any ceremony. Not that there should be.
Now imagine yourself Sunday, as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, watching the club sleepwalk through the final game of the season. You're sleepwalking, too, because you know the team is going to win, and you're sleepwalking because you're tired of ceremony. It seems this team trots out a country singer every other week for some kind of fancy to-do about players past, present, even players of the future if you play for the McKeesport Tigers. So why not sing a country song or three for the good people of Appalachia's capital city?
Anyhow, the team sleepwalks through the win, but there's this thing, Lions fans, called the playoffs. They're coming up. And sure, the goodbye to Jerome Bettis was pretty cool. It wasn't just pomp and ceremony, either. As Gene Collier wrote about Bettis this morning in the Post-Gazette: "He dragged Bill Cowher's walking hangover of a football team past the Detroit Lions."
So do you see how special it is to be a Steelers fans, dear maniacal Lions driver? Even with a hangover, there is plenty to do at Heinz Field. That's why this normally hyper-critical column is going to look past Sunday's sleepwalk and jump right to the post-game quotes and what they mean, because frankly, these last 17 weeks have all been pomp and ceremony. We're ready for some football.
"I've never seen anything like that in this league." – Dick LeBeau.
Before the game, Joey Porter arranged for delivery, to every defensive player, of Dick LeBeau's throwback jersey. He's their defensive coordinator and he once played for the Lions. LeBeau wore No. 44, and so did Porter, and Casey Hampton, and Kimo von Oelhoffen, and Shaun Nua. Everyone. That's because they love their defensive coordinator.
It happens a lot on this team. Some players even wore Bill Cowher's old jersey to a Cleveland Browns game. Yesterday, Willie Parker wore a bright yellow jersey with blue pin-striping and the name Bettis on his back. It was an old St. Louis Rams jersey.
Do ya' think these guys like each other?
This is certainly a team. We saw the love for Bettis last year when Hines Ward wept like a child for him in front of the TV cameras.
Was it too childish? Too sentimental? Some thought so because it occurred after a loss, and as we learned from Pavlov, it's not smart to associate losing with love.
Is this team a lovable loser?
It's a thought. They have another chance to disprove that theory, the theory that nice guys finish last. But more important is the fact that this team is a team. It's something Cowher has an affinity for, and this team is more united than any team he's had. It's been squeezed like a lump of coal now for a few years and the diamond is showing.
This team will never be closer, and that's going to mean so much on this difficult playoff road.
"If you're going to judge me by not having 1,000 yards, then you're not looking truly at me as a football player." – Hines Ward.
Ward finished 25 yards shy of what would've been his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season. He was thrown two passes all day: one he dropped; another he caught to extend a streak to 119 games with a catch.
That's what he said: So what.
Willie Parker gained 135 yards to top 1,200 yards. Do you know what he said? I'm not sure, but I think it was this: So what.
Jerome Bettis did not start, in spite of erroneous reporting by this alleged reporter. Do you know what he said? Yeah. You're getting the picture.
This team does not care about icing on the cake. Now, gravy, that's an entirely different matter. The playoffs are gravy. And guys like Bettis and Ward, they must have their gravy. They're very hungry.
"We played guys to get the experience." – Bill Belichick.
Or did you play the White Cassell at quarterback to avoid the Steelers?
That's the perception of dopes, and I am a dope. I really think Belichick did not want to play the Steelers in the playoffs and didn't care that his team lost Sunday.
Throw logic in my face until I'm black and blue, but I won't change my mind. Belichick is smart. His team is playing well and he could afford the loss.
Maybe the Steelers will eliminate the Colts? He had to be thinking somewhere along those lines. I know it sounds sophomoric to put two and two together like that when dealing with a Genius, but I'll stick to it. It's too improbable for anyone to pin on Belichick, so therein lies the beauty of it.
Go have yourself another dropkick, Dougie! We've got David Garrard coming to town this week!
"It really didn't mean anything." – Justin Smith.
I had Ward on the ropes in the locker room. In spite of the sleepwalk, the Steelers still managed to win by 14 points and finish with four wins for the fifth time in franchise history. They had the second-greatest margin of victory (20.5) of the other four fast finishers and they played the second-toughest schedule (.484) of the other four down the stretch. These Steelers finished strong and Ward was talking about how it should carry over into the playoffs.
Therefore, I asked him, shouldn't the Bengals -- who lost to the Chiefs, 37-3, a week after losing to the Bills and three weeks after eking out a 3-point win at home against the Browns -- be so affected in the playoffs by their finish?
I had him. I really had him. None of the other guys wanted to say for the record that they were glad to have drawn the Bengals. But I had Ward.
Hines, shouldn't the poor finish by the Bengals also carry over into the playoffs?
He smiled amidst the mob of reporters. "Yes, in that respect, yes, that's true," Ward said. He, being a pro at this game, quickly changed the gears and talked about how excited the city of Cincinnati will be. I was to assume that makes the Bengals dangerous.
Sorry, we've seen excited cities before. They don't help. Pittsburgh was very excited, oh, about five times in the last 11 years and it didn't matter. The better team won. Justin Smith, the Bengals' defensive end, will learn this, too.
"You guys watching something?" – Bill Cowher.
As of eight o'clock on the second morning of the New Year, the Post-Gazette asked fans, via an internet poll, whether they were happy to be playing the Bengals instead of the Patriots. The four percent who answered no are more than likely Penn State fans just passing time. The 96 percent who answered yes are the reason every reporter in Cowher's post-game press conference was watching the final seconds of the Miami-New England game.
That Cowher was not watching surprised most of us. We expected him to come into the room AFTER that game had finished. When he came out an instant before New England scored a touchdown, it sent a message that he really didn't care which team he would play. That Cowher didn't want to watch the potential tying conversion made the cynic in me wonder who the real genius in this football league was as of five o'clock in the evening on the first day of the New Year.
Talk about setting a tone. Jeff Hartings later explained that the Steelers could face the Patriots later on, and that it does no good to hope for one team over another.
"When you're thinking about the goals we have …" Hartings started, but he never finished. He switched gears like someone who's been here before, like someone who knows what to expect in the next week, or three, four, five.
"Right now," he said, "all we care about is the next team."