By BOB LABRIOLA
Coach Mike Tomlin walked into the room with a smile on his face and a bounce in his step. He chose a seasonal greeting to begin this Jan. 1 edition of his weekly news conference.
"Happy New Year," said Tomlin, even though there didn't seem a lot for him to be happy about.
He already had an injured reserve list that included Willie Parker and Aaron Smith; his opening day starter at left tackle was one week removed from back surgery; and Troy Polamalu hasn't been himself much at all this whole season because of knee inflammation.
On top of that, the injured reserve list was going to grow by two, with Max Starks' season having been ended by the surgery he needed to repair the meniscus in his knee that was torn in Baltimore, and with Clint Kriewaldt unable to play in the near future because of a neck injury that isn't getting better.
But none of that, even the total of all of that, could dampen Tomlin's enthusiasm, because it's January and the Steelers still are playing football.
"It's that time of year and when you think about it, and I do often, I always get excited when I think of January football because it is something that we all aspire to when we start out," said Tomlin. "When the records and the slates are clean in that summer air when you approach training camp, there are 32 teams in 32 different cities that aspire to be a part of this.
"We narrowed it down to 12, and that is the nature of this thing, and the roads are going to be tough when you get down to those situations."
The Steelers face a Jaguars team that defeated them on Dec. 16 at Heinz Field by rushing for 224 yards, a team that was the only one to defeat the Steelers in Pittsburgh this season, a team coming into these playoffs with the distinction of being the one "nobody wants to face." That doesn't dampen Tomlin's enthusiasm, either.
"It is something we crave and I'm sure something that everybody in this position craves," said Tomlin. "You want to compete against the elite of the elite, and that's what this is. We have a big challenge Saturday night and are excited for those reasons, excited to be playing at Heinz Field. Excited about being apart of that Steeler Nation home playoff football. Our fans are going to make a few tackles for us Saturday night, no doubt."
Before the week is over, the Steelers are expected to make a couple of roster moves to add some healthy players to the roster to take the spots of Starks and Kriewaldt, but Tomlin acknowledged anyone added to an NFL roster at this point in a season would be hard-pressed to make any significant on-field contribution in these playoffs.
That means Trai Essex is the left tackle, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason are still the guys to pick up the slack for Aaron Smith.
"When we talk about signing linemen at this point in January football, we are talking about for depth," said Tomlin. "It is unrealistic to think someone flying in today is going to help us play winning football this weekend. We are where we are. We always look for our answers within."
And as the Steelers continue to seek those answers, they do so with a coach who has a bounce in his step over being able to have problems to solve in January.
"Needless to say we are excited about a lot of things, and hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field this weekend in the first round of playoffs is one of them," said Tomlin. "We don't take what we did lightly. We are excited about it. It is the next step of the quest we had this year and we look forward to preparing to meet the challenge that awaits us."