There's nothing like a Super Bowl dangling from the end of a stick to inspire players in this weekend's games. Some Steelers can draw on additional incentive -- the agony of defeat at home in the AFC championship game.
It still hurts.
"I've lost two of these at home. It's not much fun," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "I think it will stay with me the rest of my life. I think no matter how many Super Bowls we win, you don't forget those games when you lose them."
Five Steelers on the active roster were around for losses to the New England Patriots in the title games at Heinz Field after the 2001 and '04 seasons, and 12 others also experienced the latter.
Those players, along with five others still on the team, went on to win Super Bowl XL after the '05 season, but it did not take away the sting of their losses at home in the other championship games.
"Oh, man, you still think about it now," said cornerback Deshea Townsend. "You think about the opportunities you had and how close you were and how you always talk about you have to seize the moment when you can because you never know when you'll get back."
Townsend and Hines Ward were rookies in 1998, drafted 3Â 1/2 months after another loss in the AFC championship game at home, to the Denver Broncos.
The Steelers have gone 1-4 in championship games at home since 1994, all under coach Bill Cowher. They went 3-1 in their previous championship games at home under Chuck Noll.
Sunday, it's coach Mike Tomlin's turn to establish his record.
"We've lost [a number] of AFC championship games here and we have a great opportunity now to correct that," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "So it's about time, sounds about time to me."
The Steelers were favorites to win four of their five previous championship games at home, underdogs only against New England in the most recent one. They were underdogs when they won at Denver after the 2005 season to reach the Super Bowl.
They remember a small pocket of New England fans celebrating in Heinz Field, especially the first one.
"Me and Hines talk about that all the time, how they got to celebrate on our field," Townsend said. "That leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you see another team on your field celebrating. You don't want to do anything to let that feeling happen again."
Said Ward: "I remember vividly playing championship games and watching the opposing team celebrate on our field. That's something that stuck with a lot of our veteran guys who were part of that team."
Watching New England celebrate was one thing.
"You definitely don't want to see Baltimore celebrating on our field," Ward said. "We get another opportunity to play at home in front of our crowd in the championship game and hopefully we can go out and win it for our home crowd."
San Diego, down by 10 points in the second half, upset the Steelers, 17-13, in the 1994 AFC championship. The Steelers edged Indianapolis, 20-16, in the '95 title game, then lost to Dallas in the Super Bowl. The Steelers were slight favorites to beat Denver in '97 but lost to John Elway, 24-21. Underdog New England returned a punt and a blocked field goal for two touchdowns in a 24-17 win in 2001. And the Patriots jumped out to a 24-3 halftime lead and beat rookie Ben Roethlisberger in '04, 41-27.
The Steelers are favored by 6 points to beat Baltimore at Heinz Field.
Aaron Smith does not think the Steelers did anything wrong leading up to their previous home losses in title games.
"I don't think there's anything you can approach differently. At this point, you have good teams playing. You just have to go out and execute better than the other team. There's nothing special you can do."
He will never forget those losses, but he says they do not motivate him any more in this one.
"My motivation is to get to the Super Bowl, period. Losing AFC championships don't motivate me, driving me to get there is what motivates me. I think I could get motivated to play my mom in this game, to be honest with you. If you need something to motivate you to play this game, you have a problem."
Said Ward: "The pressure's on everybody. It's the Super Bowl, one game away from the Super Bowl. There's pressure on both sides -- coaches, the organization, everybody.
"Regardless of the outcome the following years, this is the game you'll always remember, to get a chance to play in the Super Bowl."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com. First Published January 15, 2009 5:00 AM