Labriola On

Labriola on 'scared,' division games, 1975

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • The Steelers had lost the AFC Championship Game the previous year, and in fact had lost AFC Championship Games in two of the previous four seasons. Those had been at home, and they were about to play in that game for a third time in five years, only this one was on the road, at a site recognized as one of the league's most difficult.
  • It was still hours before kickoff in Denver for the 2005 AFC Championship Game, and some players and staff had filtered out of the team's hotel and boarded the first buses bound for the stadium. It was still about 15 minutes before departure, and there was complete silence on the first bus, everyone in their seats, lost in their own thoughts.
  • Suddenly the silence was broken, and the noise drew everyone's attention to the front of the bus. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm, since inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame following a decorated career as a guard on the Washington Redskins offensive line known as the Hogs, always sat in the first row of the first bus to the stadium on game day, and he was boarding and taking his seat.
  • Hired by the Steelers in time for the 2001 season, Grimm was a part of the Bill Cowher staff that lost AFC Championship Games in 2001 and 2004, both at Heinz Field, and both to the New England Patriots. There was a sentiment that while the Steelers of that era always were contenders, they lacked the special something required to close that kind of a deal. Over 11 seasons, the Steelers had been good enough to play in five AFC Championship Games, but they were only 1-4, and all of those had been at home.
  • Grimm dumped his bags in the front row and stood there facing the back of the half-full bus, long enough to attract the attention of those on board. Once that was accomplished, Grimm said sternly and matter-of-factly, "Anybody who's scared, get the (bleep) off the bus." Satisfied that his message had been received, and seeing that nobody moved a muscle, Grimm turned and took his seat.
  • With different words at a different time and in a different setting, Mike Tomlin essentially delivered the same message. Tomlin chose the visitor's locker room at Arrowhead Stadium following the team's Divisional Round victory over the Chiefs. Captured for eternity via the wonders of cyberspace, Tomlin's message was scrutinized in ways that Grimm's was not, but its underlying message was the same. A message of confidence mixed with toughness, laced with a heavy dose of resiliency and singleness of purpose.
  • "We'll be ready for their (bleep)," said Tomlin, "but you ain't got to tell them we're coming."
  • At the time Russ Grimm was boarding that bus in Denver, what the Steelers had to conquer was more the concept of the AFC Championship Game than a particular opponent, because that 1-4 record had been fashioned against four different opponents. Today, it's more about the Patriots.

The Steelers prepare for the AFC Championship matchup against the New England Patriots.

  • Different dragons, certainly, but dragons to be slayed nonetheless. And in both cases, the Steelers are going to have to do it themselves.
  • One of the highlights of the win over the Chiefs last Sunday was the work turned in by the Steelers kick coverage units. Tyreek Hill, who deserves to be recognized as the best dual returner in the NFL this season, finished the game with 72 total return yards – 0 on punts, and 72 on four kickoffs – and that was a significant factor in the outcome.
  • Most of the guys who made tackles on special teams for the Steelers in that game were the usual contributors – Vince Williams, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Tyler Matakevich, and Jordan Dangerfield – but also putting a hand in the pile were guys like Mike Mitchell and Ryan Shazier. Committing starters or other pedigreed players to special teams always is the decision of the head coach, and Mike Tomlin is not afraid or reluctant to make that commitment.
  • The Patriots will be playing in their sixth straight conference championship game, which is a significant accomplishment that speaks volumes about the current state of their organization. The Steelers will be playing in their 16th conference championship game, which is a significant accomplishment that speaks volumes about their commitment to winning and validates their philosophy and approach to making that happen.
  • Seahawks safety Earl Thomas recently took to social media to offer his opinion on the Patriots' streak of championship game appearances, and he chose to focus on the "competition" in the AFC East to craft his point. Criticized because it came off as sour grapes, Thomas' general point has merit.
  • In the Patriots' six-season streak, only once did another AFC East team make the playoffs, and only twice did a team in the AFC East other than New England even finish with a winning record. The Jets, Bills, and Dolphins haven't been able or capable of sustaining any success during the 2000s, and that has allowed the Patriots to have their way within their own division, which is the first step toward getting into the playoffs and then having playoff games at home.
  • It isn't the Patriots' fault that the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins can't seem to figure it out, and each division has its weak link – Cleveland in the North, Jacksonville in the South, St. Louis and recently San Francisco in Thomas' NFC West – but the difficulty of the six division games every team must play every year has a lot to do with a team's record, and record is how playoff seeding and byes are awarded.
  • And a team, in either conference, that gets a bye through the first round of the playoffs, needs only to win one game at home to be playing for its conference championship. Not once during this six-season streak did the Patriots have to play anything other than one game at home to advance to the conference championship.
  • Again, that's not their fault, and while it shouldn't diminish the accomplishment, it does deserve to be included in the chronicling of the accomplishment.
  • The competition posed to a team within its own division is a main reason why I always have disagreed with NFL Films when it chose the 1978 Steelers as the best team in franchise history. My pick is the 1975 Steelers, and part of the foundation for the argument is what that team faced in the AFC Central Division that season.
  • The 1975 Steelers finished 12-2, with losses only to O.J. Simpson's Buffalo Bills in September and then in Los Angeles to the Rams in a meaningless end-of-season game after everything had been clinched. Also in the AFC Central Division that season were the 11-3 Cincinnati Bengals, who lost twice to the Steelers, and the 10-4 Houston Oilers, who lost twice to the Steelers. And in those days, since there was only one Wild Card team per conference allowed into the playoffs, the Oilers didn't even make the playoffs.
  • The Steelers will participate in the AFC Championship Game for the 16th time this Sunday for the conference's spot in Super Bowl LI. Taking a minute to do the math, that means the Steelers have been playing for their conference championship – and a spot in the Super Bowl – every 3.2 seasons. Count your blessing, Steelers Nation.
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