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Home has been where the Steelers' hearts break

January 13, 2009|By ALAN ROBINSON

By ALAN ROBINSON

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Tom Brady. Tom Brady. John Elway.

Detect a trend?

No NFL team has lost more conference championship games at home in less time than the Pittsburgh Steelers did during the 1994-2004 seasons -- four of them in five tries, repeatedly costing them the opportunity to build an addition onto their already spacious Super Bowl trophy case.

The numerous January home-field losses defined former coach Bill Cowher's career for a decade, and left Steelers fans constantly wringing their Terrible Towels amid cries of "Why can't we win a big one here?"

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There's something to remember from all those defeats, though: The other team's quarterback generally was pretty good.

And the opposing quarterback Sunday in the Steelers' seventh AFC championship game in 15 seasons won't be Brady or Elway, but Baltimore rookie Joe Flacco, who did little in two regular season games against them.

If any Steelers team of recent vintage appears equipped to cast aside the bad memories all of those January home-field losses, it may be this one -- a team that, unlike those of the 1990s, has numerous players who have already won a Super Bowl in black and gold.

"To me this is the Super Bowl," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said of the third Ravens-Steelers game in less than four months. "You don't want to have a bad taste in your mouth by losing and watching that team go to the Super Bowl."

When the Steelers finally won a fifth Super Bowl three years ago, they clearly thrived on playing every game away from home and dodging the constant questions of why they couldn't win big playoff games at home.

Now, because many of them already own Steelers Super Bowl rings, there are no expectations inside their locker room there will be a letdown to match that of, for example, the January 1995 loss to San Diego in which defensive back Tim McKyer was so disoriented after allowing the game-winning touchdown catch that he was carried off the field.

Then there were all those interceptions Kordell Stewart threw into the Broncos' arms in January 1998. The Patriots losing Brady to injury in January 2002 but still winning with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback in the second half. The Steelers squad with the best record in club history, the 15-1 team of 2004, losing to the Patriots again in a bitter-weather blowout.

Ancient history, these Steelers say. After all, they were the only home team to win during the divisional round last weekend, beating the Chargers 35-24 on Sunday.

How about that: the home-field advantage paying off for the Steelers in January.

"It's big," Ben Roethlisberger said. "The last time we were here (for the AFC title game) my rookie year, I didn't play so well, so I'll be looking for a little redemption. It's going to be a great battle."

"It's big," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "The last time we were here (for the AFC title game) my rookie year, I didn't play so well, so I'll be looking for a little redemption. It's going to be a great battle."

If anyone can relate to what Flacco is going through this week as a rookie quarterback about to play for the AFC championship, it's Roethlisberger.

No rookie came close to accomplishing what Roethlisberger did by going 13-0 during his rookie season, then beating the Jets in the divisional round. But in the AFC championship game rematch against the Patriots, who had lost earlier in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger looked like an ordinary Joe while going 14-of-24 for 226 yards and three interceptions.

Brady, as usual, was exceptional, throwing for 207 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions as the Patriots rolled to a 41-27 victory in a game they led 41-20 until the final minute. They went on to win their third Super Bowl, and their second after beating Pittsburgh to get there.

Flacco probably can't be just any old Joe if the Ravens are to win in Pittsburgh, where they have dropped seven of their last eight. Yet he was exactly that against the Steelers this season, going 27-of-59 for 307 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in two close losses.

For comparison's sake, Flacco is 257-of-428 for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a rookie. Roethlisberger was 196-of-295 for 2,621 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2004.

Flacco couldn't get the Ravens into the end zone in last month's 13-9 loss to Pittsburgh in Baltimore, completing only 11 of 28 passes for 115 yards and two interceptions in perhaps his worst game all season.

"That's what games are going to be in December in the NFL," Flacco said.

Now he'll find out what these games are like in January. He hopes the experience isn't as deflating as it was to Roethlisberger four years ago.

If it is, the Steelers may discover again what it's like to win a conference championship game on their home field, something they've done only once in 29 years.

"I'm going to my fourth championship game," Ward said. "I'm 0-2 at home. So I want to win this one -- I'm tired of losing at home."

A couple of million Pittsburghers probably feel the same way.

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