The Pittsburgh Steelers were physically and emotionally spent. The Tennessee Titans "manhandled" them and the defense repeatedly missed tackles. The Titans had little problem wearing down the Steelers. Pittsburgh was flat, almost listless. Save the emotional spark provided by Kordell Stewart, this game was over before it even began.
Coming off of two big road victories against divisional opponents Baltimore and Cleveland, Pittsburgh returned home to face the Atlanta Falcons and Michael Vick. The Steelers would surrender a 17-point lead in a game that lasted over 4 hours and ended in a tie after 5 quarters of play.
Cowher went easy on his team during the following week of practice before the game against the Titans. His team was down, considering the tie a loss and lamenting the opportunity that they squandered.
"I was beat up," said Hines Ward about his state after the Falcons game. "I went home, took a nap. I was tired, physically exhausted, very tired."
Now the Steelers had to journey to Nashville to face a very physical Titans team. This would be the Steelers third road game in 4 weeks and the marathon game against Atlanta hardly could be considered a breather. The Steelers were already well bruised and wondering how they could give up such a big lead in the 4th quarter.
"Being down by 17 and coming back for a tie, it's a win for them and a loss for us," said Joey Porter after the tie. "It's a win for them and a loss for us. They're out there celebrating."
Porter had a big game against the Falcons and he would look the most tired of all the Steeler defenders facing the Titans, missing a number of tackles.
Fast forward to the Steelers playoff game against the Cleveland Browns. The game was one quarter, some 30 minutes shorter than the game against Atlanta. Most importantly, the outcome was quite different.
"This is the kind of game that propels you somewhere," Wayne Gandy said about the comeback victory. "Our guys decided they weren't going home today."
However, this game would take its toll as well.
"I was exhausted. I was down on two knees," said Plaxico Burress. "Hines was down on two knees. We ran the two-minute offense for the whole second half."
Winning this time is the big difference. Don't you think the Falcons should have been tired as well, after playing five quarters of football on the road?
Atlanta returned home and beat their archrivals, the New Orleans Saints. Then, they went back on the road and won their next two games, one an overtime game in Minneapolis. The emotional lift of coming back to tie the Steelers trumped the certain physical exhaustion the Falcons felt.
And now Pittsburgh marches into Nashville (with a drum, flute and flag) high off a huge comeback win over the Browns. The short week doesn't help matters, but that is not what is important. Just ask Atlanta.