The last time the Patriots and Steelers hooked up in the AFC Championship Game back in January 2002, Pittsburgh didn't handle its role as the favorite well. The Steelers players talked openly about getting down to New Orleans, the site of Super Bowl XXXI the following week, and there wasn't much attention being paid to the upstart Patriots.
Three years later, Steelers Head CoachBill Cowher would not let his team make the same mistake. After watching the Patriots invade Heinz Field and walk away with a 24-17 victory, Cowher learned a lesson and thus far hasn't allowed even the most innocuous slight to emanate from the Steel City.
Any neutral observer viewing Friday's AFC press conferences at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh must be wondering why the Steelers are even bothering to show up based on their effusive praise of the defending world champs.
"I'm not trying to say anything negative about the other teams, but look at what [the Patriots] have done," Cowher said when asked why he considers New England the league's model franchise. "They way they do their business with Bill [Belichick] making the tough decisions. The Drew Bledsoe situation was not an easy decision. The Lawyer Milloy situation was not an easy decision. They make those tough decisions and continue to come back and win.
"And when they win championships, the don't talk about the things they've done. They're always looking toward the next step ahead. I respect that because they've done it the right way."
The praise wasn't limited to the Patriots as a team, either. Cowher gushed about the intelligence and instincts of linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi. He called kicker Adam Vinatieri the game's best. And running back Corey Dillon earned Cowher's respect when the two were in Hawaii together at the Pro Bowl back in 2002.
"I thought he was one of the classiest guys out there," Cowher said. "He was the first one to practice and the last one to leave. That's how I judge. It doesn't surprise me how much success he's had this season. He's just another weapon in a very good offense. He runs hard and tough. They have a lot of weapons to defend and that's the challenge."
Evidently his players took his advice as well. Guard Alan Faneca, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, linebacker James Farrior and running back Jerome Bettis all took turns at the podium. There are exchanges at Sunday Mass that are nastier than anything uttered by a Steeler about a Patriot.
A few examples:
Bettis on the possibility of Vinatieri kicking a game-winning field goal: "That's not what I want. I don't think he bleeds. He's the best in the business at kicking under pressure. I do not want to be in the position with him having a chance to win it. He's been great at those pressure field goals and he's proven it time and time again."
Roethlisberger on the Patriots: "They're a machine, and right now they're operating at full strength. In the playoffs, with Corey Dillon back, we know how much of a struggle it's going to be.
Faneca on the first meeting: "I think we got lucky last time. We got a few turnovers and got ahead and ate up the clock. I don't put much stock in that."
Faneca on the Patriots linebackers: "They play great together. They may not have had any Pro Bowlers but the really feed off each other well."
Roethlisberger on what he gets from watching Tom Brady: "Tom Brady is in the situation a lot of quarterbacks want to be in. I try to emulate his winning style. That's what I want and that's what I try to emulate.
Farrior on Dillon: "We already know Corey Dillon is a great player. He's big, strong, fast and tough. He's kind of an old-style back in that he's not going to try to make you miss too much because he's just going to run you over."
Those comments are a far cry from when then-Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart was discussing his plans to reunite with family in the New Orleans area before the Super Bowl. This time the Steelers paid the proper respect as they prepared for what should be a very physical affair Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
Former UMass football coach Mark Whipple, who won the 1998 NCAA Division 1-AA national championship with the Minutemen, is in his first season as the Steelers quarterbacks coach. He was tested quickly when Pittsburgh's starter Tommy Maddox went down with a neck injury in a Week 2 loss at Baltimore and the untested Roethlisberger was forced to take the reins.
"Coach Whip has been great for me," Roethlisberger said. "He said he didn't want to change me when I went in there and he's always been supportive of me."
Roethlisberger was forced into action because the Steelers had already lost their only experienced backup Charlie Batch during the preseason. Cowher brought in Patriots training camp castoff Kurt Kittner for a short time but opted to stick with the rookie and BC product Brian St. Pierre, who spent much of the year as Pittsburgh's No. 3 quarterback.
Incidentally, that Week 2 loss to the Ravens was the only blemish on the Steelers schedule. Roethlisberger is 14-0 as a starter (and he sat out the finale against Buffalo nursing sore ribs) and Pittsburgh is currently riding a 15-game winning streak.
The Patriots altered their travel schedule slightly and made the trip to Pittsburgh a day early in order to avoid potential problems with flying in the snow. Forecasts for the Pittsburgh area suggest 3-6 inches of snow set to arrive Saturday evening. Currently the outlook for game time calls for cold and wind with a 30 percent chance of additional snow. With kickoff set for 6:30 p.m., Heinz Field doesn't figure to be a very pleasant place to be Sunday evening.