The Steelers ride into their third American Football Conference championship game in five years tonight, their fourth in seven years, their sixth since 1994, and their 14th since the original cast of football icons led by Franco Harris himself mapped out a sporting empire in the 1970s.
This is an athletic opulence few cities even aspire to with any practicality. The Arizona Cardinals, who play the Philadelphia Eagles in today's earlier National Football Conference title game, have not mounted such a grand stage since the Truman administration, or approximately two decades before anyone so much as thought of a Super Bowl.
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m., Heinz Field.
The line: Steelers by 6.
Series: Steelers lead, 17-10, including 1-0 in playoffs.
The skinny: Teams have met three times in the same season 18 times, with 11 sweeps. ... The Ravens led the NFL with 34 takeaways. Ed Reed has 10 INTs in their past eight games. ... John Harbaugh (16) and Mike Tomlin (32) have 48 regular-season games between them as head coaches, fewest for conference title game coaches in the Super Bowl era since the Colts' Don McCafferty and the Raiders' John Madden had 42 between them in 1970.
And still modern Championship Sundays in Pittsburgh deliver a seismic coupling of pride and wariness, something realist short story master Alice Munro might call "a terrible amount of luxury and unease."
The Steelers lost both championship games in the short history of Heinz Field. They've lost the last three title games played in Pittsburgh and four of the last five. But because they took the hair-raisingly uncharted Cincinnati-Indianapolis-Denver route to Super Bowl XL just three years ago, and because a victory tonight against the Baltimore Ravens would put them in a seventh Super Bowl (more than anyone except the Dallas Cowboys), they retain the perpetual civic burden of capacious expectations.
"We're used to this in Pittsburgh," said Hines Ward, the dean of Pittsburgh's stars. "No disrespect to the Pirates or the Penguins, but the standard around here is the Super Bowl every year. That's just what's expected."
Expectations are only part of the Pittsburgh/Steelers equation. On the other side is identity, as there is likely no fan base so intense, so far flung, so proud of something even as often indefinable as Pittsburgh ethos.
"I was at the Thursday night home game against Cincinnati [Nov. 20]," said Todd Eckert, the globe-trotting North Side film producer and video game developer, "and I was sitting next to two people from Alabama, a really hot girl who was maybe 25 and this guy she was with, he was maybe 35.
"So it was right after halftime, and I was just talking to them. 'Who are you?' 'What do you do?' That kind of thing. Not only were they in town purely to see the game, but it was as though by becoming Steeler fans, they felt they were subscribing to a certain ideology about the world. They were learning to be Steeler fans because they wanted to behave like Pittsburghers.
"More than any other sports franchise I can think of, there's a kind of work ethic about them, and I don't know if it's branding, because that gets oversimplified into black and gold or whatever, but it's something about the Steelers that is recognized in London, in Manchester; there's a Steelers bar in Leon, France."
Consequently, Pittsburghers, regional expatriates and converts the world over have an implied license to take this simple game hyper-seriously, regardless of the debatable global urgency of an event like tonight's. It's all predictably manic, if not a little bit comic.
"I've found what epitomizes Pittsburgh, what sums up what we're all about, and it's right there in the main terminal at the Pittsburgh airport," said Bill Crawford, the gifted young Pittsburgh comedian. "There are two huge statues there. One is of George Washington, and one is of Franco Harris. People from Pittsburgh pass them and think, 'Yeah, that's normal, let's get our flight,' or 'Yeah, that's totally all right, let's go to Brookstone.'
"But people from outside the city see that and think it's ridiculous. They're like, 'What? Wait, this guy's the father of our country, and this other guy caught a football off somebody's helmet 35 years ago.' You can hear the argument, right?
"Dude, he was the first president."
"Oh yeah? Well Franco was a first-round draft choice in 1972."
"But Washington beat the Redcoats."
"Hey, Franco beat the Raiders -- it's pretty well documented. It was Immaculate."
"C'mon; he was the leader of the Continental Army!"
"Franco had Franco's Italian Army, it was his army, so in my mind, Franco's up one."
Small wonder that our own view of world history, even as it's unfolding, often gets seen through a black-and-gold looking glass. On the front page of this newspaper, the morning of Dec. 29, an all-capital letters, five-column headline read, "BIG BEN DOWN, PROBABLY NOT OUT." The one-column head next to that said, "Israel pounds Gaza by air again."
Steelers nose tackle Chris Hoke, who spent two years after college at Brigham Young University banging on doors in Eastern Europe spreading the Mormon word, has to wonder at the way the Steelers' gospel spreads with such fluidity and penetration.
"Kids grew up watching the great Steelers of the '70's, when the Steelers were really made, and it's just become their life," Mr. Hoke said the other day. "It's so much better than where I'm from, Southern California. There, people go to the games just to be seen. They don't care about them much. People in Pittsburgh, they live and die with it, and I mean literally live and die. Remember during the Super Bowl, people died?"
People died during the Super Bowl, but whether it was game-related knows no documentation. Mr. Hoke had to be referring to Terry O'Neill, the then-49-year-old union man who toppled to the floor of a South Side tavern when Jerome Bettis fumbled near the goal line in Indianapolis in the divisional playoff in 2006. Mr. O'Neill was defibrillated back to life.
You wonder sometimes if the younger Steelers, and even second-year coach Mike Tomlin, fully understand the depth of feeling for days like today outside the locker room and the stadium.
"I don't, and I know that I don't," Mr. Tomlin said candidly last week. "I lead a kind of insulated life here in Pittsburgh. I go to work and I go home. But it's not that I don't appreciate it, not that I don't cherish the opportunity. I'm humbled to know that what we do is important to people. We take a real sense of pride from that."
As the next Steelers cataclysm draws within hours, additions to the faith are fervently sought and dutifully recorded. The Steelers have never lost to a division opponent such as Baltimore in a postseason game. They're 7-0. When they beat an opponent twice in one season, as they have the Ravens this year, they've never lost a third meeting such as this. They are 7-0.
In the compound Pittsburgh equation though, there is something more than, again, "a terrible amount of luxury and unease."
"The reason we watch sports is the uncertainty of the outcome, but it's particularly compelling in a framework of success, like in Pittsburgh," Mr. Eckert said. "Look at San Francisco. There is a history of bohemia, which is generally enough to color a future of bohemia to a certain extent.
"With Pittsburgh, the Steelers are the embodiment of everything the city has ever done right, presented today in the urgency of a live event, a live event that can color the question of whether we can continue to do so."
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.