Hines Ward knows what Steelers players are going through this week. He was there 10 years ago, preparing to play the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Wild Card game on Jan. 8, 2006.
Ten years ago the Steelers were a No. 6 seed and on the road, the same situation the Steelers are in this year. And as was the case 10 years ago, the Steelers and Bengals split the regular season series, with both teams winning on the road.
It was a scenario that turned out perfect for the Steelers, who went into Cincinnati and won 31-17.
"The mentality of us against the world, we kind of thrived off that," said Ward. "It was us against the world. A No. 6 seed had never run the gauntlet and made it all the way to the Super Bowl, let alone win the Super Bowl. Being a No. 6 seed and playing Cincinnati, a place where we had won earlier that year, we just had a comfort level going in there and knowing that we could come out of that game with a victory."
The game wasn't one that particularly stood out on the stat sheet, with Jerome Bettis the leading rusher with just 52 yards, but all of them hard-fought, meaningful yards that included a five-yard touchdown, and Ward catching just two passes for 10 yards, one of the two catches going for a five-yard touchdown. Others stepped up, including receiver Cedrick Wilson who had three catches for 104 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown reception on a flea-flicker from Ben Roethlisberger. On defense James Farrior and Troy Polamalu who had key interceptions, and overall the defense was able to contain the Bengals.
"It was a great team effort and it wasn't just one sided where the defense had to carry the offense, or vice versa," said Ward. "We complimented each other very well. I think that was a sign of a championship football team. We played off of each other. We had some great leaders on the defensive side of the ball and we fed off each other. Troy's interception, it's just that epitomized what type of player he was, he always made the big time plays when we needed him the most."
"When it comes down to playoff football you have to execute and that is what we did. It comes down to going out and having all 11 guys on the same page. We were comfortable going on the road and playing in Cincinnati. For whatever reason playing a game in Cincinnati gave us a comfort level. Going into the stadium, we had won there that season."
Ward is hoping for the same results this year. Ward said he thinks Roethlisberger's experience playing in Cincinnati throughout his career will be a plus for the Steelers this week, but the injury to running back Le'Veon Bell will also play a huge role.
"You don't really know how that injury is going to affect you offensively because he provides the balance that you have to have," said Ward. "If he's not in that makes the Steelers one dimensional and it's easier for defensive coordinators to try to scheme against you.
"Any time you have Ben on the team, a guy who has been in these battles, you always have a good chance of going out there and competing and an opportunity to win the ball game. Ben's been there before, Ben Roethlisberger's been there before so you have to lean heavily on the veteran guys. If DeAngelo Williams is not there, Antonio Brown needs to step his game up more than what he already has. I don't even know if that's possible or not as he's having an outstanding year. Everybody has to step up and be playmakers offensively, defensively, and special teams. You can have any 'my bad' or 'my mistake' because there is no tomorrow you know each play is magnified when you get into the playoffs. That's the difference between playoff football and regular season football, there is no tomorrow. Ben's been there before and he's kind of a warrior and thrives off the 'us against the world' mentality. I look forward to it being a competitive game, but I look for the Steelers to steal one again and it's like deja vu all over again."