They just had completed one of the best regular seasons in NFL history, securing home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs while cultivating a healthy swagger. "We really feel like this is our year," Pro Bowl running back Jerome Bettis told me late in the 2004 season. "The Super Bowl goes through Pittsburgh."
What went down in Steeltown three years ago doesn't necessarily mean that the Chargers can start getting their Super Bowl rings fitted, but the heavy underdogs in Sunday's AFC championship game at least can take comfort in recent historical precedent.
Once the '04 postseason began, the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers suddenly looked choppy and flat. They sweated out a couple of Doug Brien missed field goals to eke out an overtime victory over the New York Jets in the divisional round, then got blown off Heinz Field by the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, continuing an extended run of playoff futility.
If they couldn't win a Super Bowl that year, many cynics reasoned, those Steelers as we knew them would never get it done.
A year later, it was all set up for the Indianapolis Colts, who won their first 13 games to lock up the AFC's top seed. But in Indy's first playoff game, the Colts were stunned by a No. 6 seed, an upstart which barely had snuck into the playoffs. That spoiler, which would go on to win a third consecutive postseason game on the road before capturing Super Bowl XL? The previously written-off Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Colts, mired in a long run of postseason disappointments, seemed to have missed their best chance for a championship.
In '06 the pattern continued: The Chargers rolled to a league-best 14-2 record and locked up the No. 1 seed. In their first game they blew a lead and got stung by the Patriots, who in turn lost the AFC championship game – to the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts.
Does this mean the Chargers will take down the 17-0 Patriots in Foxborough on Sunday and go on to capture their first Super Bowl championship? With its three most important offensive skill players banged up and one of the most formidable foes in league history blocking its path, San Diego will need an exceptional effort to get it done.
Even if the Patriots prevail, however, we once again are witnessing a team that seems to be peaking a year later than we expected. By pulling out a stunning 28-24 divisional-round victory over the Colts at the RCA Dome last Sunday, the Chargers undid a reputation as "frontrunners" who "don't rise to the occasion."
While most of the rest of us wondered how a team that had struggled so mightily through the season's first 10 games was capable of such a macho performance, the Chargers' players were far less surprised. To them, they finally had lived up to the obvious potential they'd displayed a year earlier, when they went into every game from the middle of the season on expecting to win.
"It means nothing to be in the AFC championship game," outside linebacker Shaun Phillips said after the victory over the Colts. "It means something to win it. Yes, we thought we were going to be in this spot from Week 1 until now. We've got the best team in the league. We got off to a slow start, but everybody needs time to get things rolling."
I'm not sure why three consecutive presumed powers have taken an extra year to achieve the anticipated postseason success, but I do have a few theories:
• In this age of real-time hype and unprecedented media overkill, some players – particularly younger ones – are increasingly susceptible to buying into an aura of invincibility that doesn't exist in today's NFL. In our breathless urge to coronate champions in March, August and October (and, conversely, to write off teams after one shaky performance), perhaps we also cultivate a complacent mindset in some of the men who play the game. I know it may sound somewhat far-fetched, but it is human nature to lose one's edge when overly praised – and football is a physically and mentally taxing sport in which even the slightest subconscious letdown can translate into a missed tackle or extra yard.
• Having stared into the abyss, all three of these teams approached their next postseason opportunities with a discernible lack of fear. In other words, because they had dealt with defeats that were almost universally viewed as calamitous, the players in question didn't seem overly stressed about the potential ramifications of an encore performance. The '05 Steelers were aggressive and focused in winning three road games to get to the Super Bowl. The '06 Colts confronted their biggest nightmare – the prospect of yet another playoff elimination by the Patriots, who jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the AFC championship game – and were unblinkingly poised in completing a dramatic comeback. This year's Chargers trailed at halftime in their playoff opener and came back to defeat the Titans. Several people who spent time around the team in Indy each used the same word to describe the players' mood: loose. The Chargers certainly seemed that way as they pulled out a victory over the Colts that featured six lead changes. If they lose at New England on Sunday, it won't be because they're overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment.
• In each case, the quarterback learned that he didn't have to carry the team for it to have success. Thrust unexpectedly into the starting lineup as a rookie in '04, the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger smartly executed a conservative scheme that put the onus on the team's veteran skill players and punishing defense – until the playoffs, when he admittedly tried to do too much. A year later, Big Ben didn't force many passes in the postseason and ended up winning the Super Bowl despite playing one of his worst statistical games. For all of Peyton Manning's prolific performances prior to '06, he also won a championship after understanding the importance of playing a subordinate role at key times. Indy's running game and defense were the driving forces in two of its first three postseason triumphs in '06. Now, the Chargers' Philip Rivers, a second-year starter, is on a hot streak that began after he seemed to stop pressing in trying to pull the team out of an early-season funk. He also has diversified his approach to playing the position: Last season Rivers struggled down the stretch as the pressure mounted and seemed overly locked in on halfback LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. Thus far in the '07 playoffs, Rivers has spread the ball around to his wideouts and seems more willing and able to get the ball to the open man.
With all of that said, this year's Patriots are the exception to every rule, and it's tough to imagine that this curious run of belated No. 1 seed success will continue. If New England wins on Sunday, I will conclude that while these theories may have some validity, another of my time-tested tenets – never bet against Tom Brady in a big game – carries far more weight.
Either way, in light of what went down last Sunday, watch out for the 2008 Dallas Cowboys.
AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR
Speaking of the Cowboys, it pains me to note that there likely will be no more handy-dandy Jessica Simpson references in this regular Wednesday feature, at least until it resumes sometime over the offseason. I'll miss her, along with Mike Holmgren's snow-drenched 'stache and my relentless Pro Bowl campaign for Fred Taylor, who blessedly will go to Hawaii after all.
I'll also dearly miss those emails from people in Dallas and Indy debating which team rightfully should be No. 2 in my rankings.
Now, for our quartet of survivors:
1. New England Patriots: Isn't it about time for their amazing offensive line to get another national TV commercial?