Even after he had a collection of Lombardis under glass in the team’s lobby inside Three Rivers Stadium, Dan Rooney never stopped preaching that dominating your division on the way to winning a division championship is the first step. He believed that was true for a team that had no postseason success in its entire history, as was the case for the 1972 Steelers; and he hadn’t changed his mind when his team was looking to become the first in NFL history with six Super Bowl championships, as was the case for the 2008 Steelers.
The 1970s Steelers won four championships over a six-season span and are remembered in some circles as the NFL’s dominant dynasty of the Super Bowl era, and their team president Dan Rooney never wavered in his belief that such heights only could be reached because those teams first established supremacy in the AFC Central Division. During those six seasons in the 1970s that included those four championships, the Steelers were 28-8 (.778) in games against division rivals, with 1975 standing out as a dramatic display of their dominance.
Before winning Super Bowl X and becoming the third franchise to go back-to-back, the 1975 Steelers finished 12-2 to win the AFC Central Division, and they were 6-0 in those games – the first time they ever were undefeated in division play. But even more telling than that was the fact the Cincinnati Bengals finished second in the AFC Central Division that season at 11-3 with two losses to the Steelers, and the Houston Oilers finished third in the AFC Central Division that season at 10-4 with two losses to the Steelers.
When Bill Cowher was hired in January 1992 to take over for Noll, he looked over the AFC Central and saw the Houston Oilers, with their run-and-shoot offense, sitting atop the heap and so he set out to construct a team capable of defeating that. It was this assignment that fast-tracked the development of the zone-blitz, which is what turned the run-and-shoot offense into the chuck-and-duck and quickly turned it into a footnote in NFL history.
When Mike Tomlin was hired in 2007 to replace Cowher, his assessment of the AFC North was that it was going to require a physical, hard-hitting brand of football to survive in a division where the annual schedule included two games against both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.
In 2008, when the Steelers won their sixth Lombardi in Super Bowl XLIII, the game that would decide the AFC’s representative would match the Steelers and the Ravens for a third time. The night before, Tomlin told his players the team that was more physical would win the AFC Championship, which is exactly what happened that night at Heinz Field.
Tomlin’s blanket label for games against the Browns, Bengals, and Ravens is “AFC North ball,” and there is an understanding of what’s to come against each of those teams. Against the Ravens, it means a heavyweight championship fight where you better be ready to give as good as you get. Against the Bengals, it’s similar but dirtier. And against the Browns, it’s understanding that you’re going to get their best effort, regardless of what is, or is not, at stake.
That was the case earlier today at Heinz Field, where the Steelers needed a victory and a miracle, a.k.a., the Jets defeating New England in Foxborough, to wrest the top seed in the AFC Playoffs from the Patriots; and where the Browns were playing to avoid becoming the second franchise in NFL history to go 0-16 over the course of a regular season.
As usual, Tomlin made sure his players understood that sweeping the AFC North was important, but as usual, he also kept things in perspective. With his team’s playoff seeding all but clinched, the Steelers would play to win under their own terms. Which meant Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Cam Heyward would not be in uniform, nor would Antonio Brown, but he was rehabilitating a calf injury.
When asked what he hoped for the outcome of this regular season finale, Tomlin had said, “That we took care of our business in our stadium, and that’s all we can control. I know that there are other variables out there. Very rarely do I worry about those things. I tell our guys from Day Zero that if we control what’s in our stadium then we don’t have to look around. If we don’t, then there are consequences for it. So anything that doesn’t roll in our favor today outside of our stadium, we’ve had an opportunity to address it and we didn’t. So that’s just life. There are lessons to be learned from that. I find comfort in the fact that we talk about it before it happens. It puts an edge to the things we do on a day-to-day basis. I’m looking forward to living out this journey regardless of what happens.”
And so because there was more of the journey ahead, there was no Roethlisberger or Brown or Bell or Heyward, but there was Landry Jones, who completed 85.2 percent and had a passer rating of 100.5; and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had nine catches for 143 yard (15.9 average) and a 20-yard touchdown, plus a 96-kickoff return for another score; and Stevan Ridley, who had 80 yards on 17 carries (4.7 average) and a 4-yard touchdown; and Tyson Alualu, who had two of the six sacks to help the team set a single-season franchise record with 56.
And the Steelers did what they do, which was win a game, this one by 28-24, to finish with a 13-3 record that included a 6-0 mark against AFC North opponents.
Which is exactly what Mike Tomlin meant by taking care of their business in their stadium. Now, it’s on to the playoffs and the next leg of the journey.