FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – For a team that had just gotten pummeled by the Patriots, the Steelers sure had a lot of bravado Sunday night. Though the Pats shredded their No. 1-ranked defense – and quarterback Tom Brady, among others, talked trash along the way – several Steelers I spoke to after the game were still in a fighting mood.
"Everybody thinks they're so classy," linebacker James Farrior said of the Patriots. "They're just like any other team – they're down and dirty, too. I know we talk it, and so do they. I like it when a team talks trash."
Added linebacker Clark Haggans: "People like to try to hit us in the mouth. We hit back. We don't back down to anybody. There was some talk about that out there. They talked. We talked. We draw the line, and if you try to cross it, there's going to be a battle. Like it or not, that's the mentality of this team. The Patriots beat us today, and we just move forward from here."
As to where the 9-4 Steelers are headed, Haggans added, "Oh, we want them again."
Well, guess what, guys? You may very well get that return trip to Foxborough, though it may not come in the round you'd like.
Those footsteps you hear are from the Chargers, who are 8-5 and, with a soft remaining schedule (Detroit and Denver at home, at Oakland), seem very capable of finishing 11-5 as AFC West champions. Meanwhile the Steelers, probable champions of the AFC North, host the dangerous Jaguars on Sunday before closing the regular season with road games at St. Louis and Baltimore.
If the Steelers lose to the Jags and the Chargers go 3-0, San Diego would win the tiebreaker for the No. 3 seed in the AFC by virtue of a better conference record. That would likely allow the Chargers to avoid the Jags (the probable No. 5 seed) in their first playoff game and, if victorious, would send them to Indy in the divisional round.
The Steelers, in that scenario, would return to Gillette Stadium to slug it out with the Pats.
Undoubtedly, some Pittsburgh players are inspired by their experience of two years ago. In 2005, the Steelers suffered a 26-7 defeat to the Colts in Indy in late November and snuck into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. Indianapolis started the season 13-0 and, as the No. 1 seed, hosted Pittsburgh in a divisional-round rematch. The Steelers came out like a different team, dominated physically and scored a 21-18 upset en route to a Super Bowl championship.
If Pittsburgh can pull something like that off again this season, against a Pats team that seems destined to go 16-0, it would be even more shocking. Give the Steelers credit for not shrinking from the challenge.
"Today, they were a better team," wideout Hines Ward said Sunday. "They came out and executed, and we had breakdowns. We've got a chance to see this team again, but we've got to work hard to improve between now and then."
If they stumble this Sunday against Jacksonville, the Steelers may see the Patriots a bit earlier than they originally planned.
And, as you have all season, you'll see the Pats first in our top-to-bottom list of scintillating queries:
1. New England Patriots: When the Pats run it up on Eric Mangini, will Bill Belichick go for two?
5. Pittsburgh Steelers: That was the league's No. 1 defense?
7. Seattle Seahawks: Will Mike Holmgren win another playoff game in Lambeau?
11. New York Giants: They're not folding, are they?
13. Minnesota Vikings: Did anyone see this coming a month ago?
15. Houston Texans: Why do I get the feeling this team is on the verge of greatness?
16. New Orleans Saints: Is this team bipolar?
17. Arizona Cardinals: Was that a raw quail egg you laid in Seattle, and could you kindly ensure that I don't end up eating it at Shiro's, one of the city's sublime sushi spots?
18. Washington Redskins: Is this team still battling, or are the Bears just that atrocious?
21. Detroit Lions: What's worse, Lions fans – collapsing like this, or sucking from the start?
25. Baltimore Ravens: If they lost to the Patriots by 4 one week and to the Colts by 24 the next … nah, we can't think that way, can we?
26. New York Jets: Hey, Eric Mangini, a.k.a. Chip Diller – you know that scene in Animal House in which Douglas C. Neidermeyer takes out the paddle and says, "We now consecrate the bond of obedience … assume the position"?
29. Atlanta Falcons: Is Bobby Petrino the 21st century's first carpetbagger?
30. Kansas City Chiefs: Aren't you blown away by their grit?
32. Miami Dolphins: If I blast Zeppelin's "The Lemon Song" all week before I head to Miami, will it bring these guys good luck (and, potentially, convince my daughter to stop referring to the band as "too soft")?