The Pittsburgh Steelers' journey towards playoff glory begins today at a frigid Heinz Field.
The opposition will be the San Diego Chargers. Second-year Steeler coach Mike Tomlin has surpassed many expectations by winning 22 games since his hiring in February of 2007.
To go along with that, he has two NFC North titles and, more importantly, the respect of his players. His rise to the upper echelon of the head-coaching ranks has come quickly.
One thing he would trade that all in for is playoff success. To accomplish this, the Black & Gold need to find the other half pf a proven formula needed to win in January.
The "Bus," Jerome Bettis, will be the Steelers' honorary captain today for the coin toss. Smart money would bet there are still tire marks embedding under the new sod at Heinz Field.
The Steelers desperately need a return to that "grind it out," hard-nosed style of football.
The Steelers lost offensive guard Alan Faneca to free agency prior the start of this season. Couple that with the injuries to Kendall Simmons and Marvel Smith, and that's three starters missing from Super Bowl XL.
The offensive line play this season has been scrutinized. There has been talk that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger holds onto the ball too long. Many think wide receiver Santonio Holmes has been a disappointment this season. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has had calls for his dismissal. The Steelers need a magic potion to come and sweep this all under the proverbial rug. And that tonic is in the form of a running attack.
The worst thing the Steelers can do this year is waste a defense that has been sensational. The Steel Curtain, led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, has outclassed and humbled many a foe on the way to becoming the single most dominant unit in the NFL.
Roethlisberger suffered a major concussion the last time out and just passed the mandatory "memory test" this past Monday. What does all of this add up to? Old school football.
As odd as it sounds, the Steelers can actually surprise the Bolts today with an offensive scheme that has plenty of runs. This will open up throwing lanes for Big Ben and reduce the amount of times the Chargers can blitz.
The most important part of this strategy is it will minimize the Steelers' chances of turnovers.
Am I saying they need to take a "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach? No. But play to what your strength is, and undoubtedly it has been the play of the defense. The team that runs the ball effectively and prevents the opposition from doing so has won many a playoff football game.
The Chargers come into today as hot as anyone in the league. They won their last four regular season games and knocked out league MVP Peyton Manning and the Colts in the wild-card round last week. Star back LaDainion Tomlinson most likely will be watching the game from the sidelines, as a torn leg tendon has rendered him all but useless.
QB Philip Rivers leads the league in passer rating, but most of his success has come in the comfy confines of Qualcomm Stadium.
Today, he will faith a hungry and determined Steelers defense which believes it can win the game on its own.
Prediction: The Steelers make a big play in each of the three phases of the game. Big Ben gets back into the cockpit, and once again handles the stresses of playoff football. Tomlin gets his first playoff victory.
Steelers 23, Chargers 9
Andros is a frequent contributor to Voice of the Fan, often commenting on the Steelers. He resides in Altoona.