Steelers blessing is that NFL is not BCS-like

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With the whispering humility of his authentic locker room persona, Troy Polamalu devoted part of an allegedly normal Wednesday discussing the generally abnormal circumstance of another Super Bowl coming around just three years after his first.

"It's a blessing," said the compact safety without whom neither of Pittsburgh's past two Super appointments could have been arranged. "God had mercy on us, saying, 'If I send you to Detroit, then I'm going to have to send you to Tampa, too.' "

A little midweek slice of meteorological humor wouldn't figure to be lurking in Troy's media repertoire, but God has no monopoly on the whole working-in-mysterious-ways gig.

There was, in fact, right there in Polamalu's reliably graceful observations, a blessing no one might yet have counted relative to these 2008 Steelers.

When Mike Tomlin's second edition qualified for the AFC playoffs, there were two teams in the field for whom the Steelers held no empirical evidence that they could beat. Indianapolis won at Heinz Field in November, and Tennessee delivered for Christmas week the second-worst whipping of the short Tomlin era. Both those teams were eliminated by teams the Steelers had beaten, San Diego and Baltimore, and knew they could beat again.

Could these Steelers have handled the Colts at home Jan. 11? If so, could they have returned to Music City with something vastly more melodious than the 31-14 karaoke they squealed out just four weeks earlier.

"Yes," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "It's just like in 2005; we're the hottest team at the right time. You have to go into these games with momentum, and that's what we're doing now."

What they're doing is beating postseason opposition by an average of 10 points, very similar to what the Arizona Cardinals are doing, beating postseason opposition by an average of 11. When you do that in theatre of what Tomlin calls January football, well, that's when you get to play February football.

What a relief it is, frankly, that the NFL season never degenerates into this type of discussion.

If the BCS were running this league, the Titans and the Giants would be headed to Tampa, at least ideally, but they both lost key games late, which is much worse than losing 'em early, except that the relative strength of schedules weighed against the adjusted annual estimate for pork futures divided by the average annual temperature in Brisbane could easily put the Jets in Tampa against the Bears.

That's how the colleges like it, apparently.

Barack Obama has indicated repeatedly that the business of remaking America should include a playoff system for the college game, but apparently it's not right at the apex of the presidential to-do list. I did read an Internet headline on the 44th president yesterday, however, that appeared to be football related: "Obama draft order calls for closing Guantanamo Bay." I thought the draft order started with Detroit this year, but he's the boss.

The fact is, in four of the seven years in which the Steelers have advanced to the Super Bowl, they were not the best team in the AFC judging strictly by their regular-season record. Their 2005 mark of 11-5 was good only for a tie for fourth in the conference, which might have put them in the equivalent of the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Kansas City had a better record than the 11-5 from which Bill Cowher's team launched itself to Super Bowl XXX. The dynastic '70s Steelers included two teams that had the best record in the AFC, but the '74 team's 10-3-1 was bettered by Miami (11-2) and Oakland (12-2), and the '79 team, though it tied for the best record with the Chargers, got spanked 35-7 at San Diego late in the season. That might have sent them to the Sun Bowl real quick.

"This will be like going to a bowl game," said Steelers corner Bryant McFadden, the former Florida State standout who follows the college game closely. "Palm trees, the whole bit."

But Bryant flatly dismissed any narrative that would suggest the Steelers are anything but the best team in the AFC.

"We beat a very explosive, impressive San Diego Chargers team, and, after that, we beat a great Baltimore team that just knocked off Tennessee, the supposed best team in the conference," McFadden said. "And we earned the first-round bye against one of the toughest schedules in recent history."

"I don't think there's any question we're the best in the conference," said Keisel. "We did get beat a couple of times, but we're winning the games that count, in January, because we're the best team in the conference."

And here's how you know that; it's the same way you know the Cardinals, the 9-7 Cardinals, are the best team in the NFC.

They're both in the Super Bowl.

What a system.

Pity it has no standing in higher education.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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