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Labriola on the elephant in the room
December 15, 2017 11:00 AM | Bob Labriola
Ready or not, here it comes:

* The opponent was different. The venue was different. Most of the players and coaches were different. The situation, however, was somewhat similar to this weekend, and so I share this anecdote:

* It was Jan. 22, a crisp cold day in Denver, several hours before the Steelers and the Broncos would face each other in the 2005 AFC Championship Game, with the winner earning the conference's slot in Super Bowl XL. This would be the Steelers third appearance in an AFC Championship Game over a five-year span, and they had lost the previous two. In fact, it was going to be their sixth appearance in an AFC Championship Game with Bill Cowher as their coach, and they had won just one of those previous five.

* It was said that during the 1970s, Steelers fans were so spoiled that they had come to believe the Super Bowl was just another game on their favorite team's schedule. But soon after Bill Cowher was hired in 1992, Steelers fans had come to expect the worst any time their favorite team advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Cowher's Steelers got that far a lot, which was a good thing; but then they regularly lost, which was not.

* The Steelers had been 9-point favorites when they lost to San Diego in the 1994 AFC Championship Game, 10-point favorites when they lost to New England in the 2001 AFC Championship Game, and 12-point favorites when they needed a last-play breakup of a pass in the end zone to squeeze by Indianapolis in the 1995 AFC Championship Game. And all of those games had been played in Pittsburgh.

* So had the 2004 AFC Championship Game, and in that one the 15-1 Steelers lost decisively, 41-27, to the Patriots at Heinz Field. One season later, the Steelers were back in the AFC Championship Game, and their opponent was the No. 2-seeded Denver Broncos.

* It was still three hours before kickoff, maybe more, when some players and staff trickled onto the first buses scheduled to leave from the team hotel for the ride to the stadium. The mood? Apprehensive would be a good word to describe it.

* On the first bus, known to everyone in the organization as Bus 1, the first seat in the row opposite the driver was Russ Grimm's. Not that it was reserved, but everybody knew whose seat it was, and nobody was interested in crossing the guy who in many ways was the ringleader of the Hogs, football's most famous offensive line since the Seven Blocks of Granite.

* Grimm had been a part of Cowher's coaching staff since 2001, and therefore had been an eyewitness to the AFC Championship Game failures in 2001 and 2004, and he had a good sense of the mood that had developed as a result. When Grimm boarded Bus 1 that day, he did so noisily, so as to draw the attention of everyone who already was seated. He dumped his bag and briefcase, which drew even more attention, and then he snarled:

* "Anybody who's scared, get the (bleep) off the bus."

* In his own way, that's what Mike Tomlin has done with regards to Sunday's game against the New England Patriots. Tomlin has referred to it as recognizing the elephant in the room, but in its own way it's the same direct, in-your-face approach that worked for the Steelers in 2005.

* The history of Pittsburgh vs. New England has been very one-sided of late, but few, if any, of the Steelers' current significant players and coaches have experienced much of the angst beyond the loss in last season's AFC Championship Game.

* Go back to 2001, and only Kevin Colbert and John Mitchell understand the pain associated with watching Steelers special teams allow a punt return for a touchdown and then get a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown in what ended up being a 24-17 loss. Only Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison were there on that bitterly cold day at Heinz Field when the Steelers joined the Minnesota Vikings as the only NFL teams to that point to finish a regular season 15-1 and not advance to the Super Bowl.

* For most of these current players, their direct experience with the Patriots as members of the Steelers includes three, maybe four meetings, but all of those were defeats, including the one last January that ended their season one step away from the Super Bowl. But never having experienced any success against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, coupled with the constant reminders of a history of which they had no part but was nevertheless unsuccessful, definitely had the potential to get into people's heads.

* And so Tomlin brought it all into the open, maybe to them even before that interview with Tony Dungy a few weeks ago, and such truth-telling has been his trademark from the day he was hired.

* In 2008, Tomlin talked openly about a regular season schedule that was one of the most difficult assigned to an individual team in decades, with a stretch that included games against the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, Peyton Manning's Colts, Philip Rivers' Chargers, the Bengals on the next Thursday night, in New England, against the Cowboys, in Baltimore, and in Tennessee against the top-seeded Titans, and he did it by referring to the stretch as the "five-star matchup of the week."

* In 2008 and 2010 after both the Steelers and Ravens finished 12-4 both years with the winner of those matchups winning the division and earning home-field advantage for the inevitable postseason game between the teams, Tomlin referred to the rivalry as "two trains, one track."

* A lot was at stake back then. Now, it's the Patriots, and there's just as much at stake now.

* "I love it. It's good to be in big games," said Tomlin when asked during his weekly news conference about the hype building for Sunday's game. "It's better to be in big games than ones that nobody is watching. We better be appreciative of this spot and not resist it in any way, but embrace it because this is what we've been fighting for since March. To be in these types of games against these type of people. Why would you fight that? It's an awesome thing."

* Just so you know, Tomlin isn't the first Steelers coach to tell his team that he thinks they're good enough to win a championship and that he expects them to follow through and go on to win the championship. It was a different era, and so it was handled differently, but what Chuck Noll did back in 1974 was a bold move for the time just as Tomlin's comments about the "elephant in the room" are being perceived as bold today.

* I'll allow Joe Greene to handle the narrative:

* "We had played Buffalo in the first round of the 1974 playoffs, and that's when we really introduced the Stunt 4-3, because we were desperate to stop O.J. Simpson, who had put up almost 200 yards rushing the last time he played against us," said Greene as he set the scene. "The reason we had been losing in the playoffs was because other teams were running the football on us. Miami did in 1972, and Oakland did it in 1973.

* "The thing that really, really gave us the impetus and the mind-set, and gave us - as Chuck always said - the refuse-to-be-denied attitude - came on the Monday after we beat Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs in 1974, the start of the week of practice before we went to Oakland for the AFC Championship Game. People on the outside would always hear things like the refuse-to-be-denied attitude and call that a cliché, but to us it was real. But anyway, we were sitting in the team meeting room over at Three Rivers Stadium, and Chuck said, 'You know, the coach of the Raiders (John Madden) said the two best teams in football (Miami and Oakland) played yesterday, and that was the Super Bowl.' He said, 'Well, the Super Bowl is three weeks from now, and the best team in pro football is sitting right here in this room.'

* "I'm telling you, I think I levitated right out of my seat when I heard that. There was no way that the Raiders were going to beat us. Again, it all came from the consistency of Chuck, because when he said that, it was very un-Chuck-like and that's why it had so much power to it. It was almost like it happened yesterday."

* Mike Tomlin isn't trying to be Chuck Noll, and he'd be the first to admit that Noll is the greatest coach in franchise history, one of the greatest in NFL history. But in that moment, in that meeting room at Three Rivers Stadium, Noll was giving his team a burst of confidence because he believed that's what it needed to be the best it could be.

* With what he said to Tony Dungy - knowing that it was going to air on national television - and with his approach to Sunday's game against the Patriots, Tomlin is trying to do the very same thing.
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