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Steelers optimistic about underdog role

| Monday, Dec. 30, 2002

Having failed in the role of playoff favorite last season, the Steelers will try life as an underdog this time. Predictably, they have found reasons to be optimistic about their new role.

Despite coming back to edge Baltimore, 34-31, on Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers will not ease into the playoffs with their customary first-round bye. Tennessee slammed that door by beating Houston, 13-3.

Two notes of irony there. First, former Steelers kicker Kris Brown failed on a pair of first-half, field-goal tries for Houston. Second, Tennessee, the franchise formerly know as the Houston Oilers, gained a small measure of revenge for all those times it had failed to knock down the door to the Super Bowl guarded in the 1970s by the Steelers.

But back to the present.

The Steelers finished the season with a 10-5-1 record, won the AFC North, but they didn't manage to make the top two in the AFC. Top-seed Oakland and second-seeded Tennessee will rest the coming weekend. The Steelers will play the first week of the postseason, which hasn't happened since 1996.

It didn't work out well in '96, with the Steelers thumping Indianapolis but going meekly at New England in the next round.

Then again, high seeds haven't worked out well, either, for the Steelers. Including last season's stunning home loss to New England, the Steelers under coach Bill Cowher are 1-3 in home AFC Championship games.

So, maybe this change won't hurt.

"We have gone in so many different ways; always have come out with a loss. That's the negative," Cowher said of his playoff past with the Steelers. "It (no bye) is the hand we're dealt. Yeah, I like it."

Failing to gain a bye, and so having to play and win an extra game to get to the Super Bowl is supposed to be a kiss of death. Being on the road is supposed to catch up with a team. Except, in three of the past five seasons, the AFC has been represented by teams that didn't have first-round byes. Two of those teams, Baltimore in the 2000 season and Denver in 1997, also won the Super Bowl.

The Steelers have mapped out the tough road to the Super Bowl, but it's one that has been well-traveled, and successfully, by AFC teams.

"I think this is probably the best thing for us, a challenge," defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said.

The Steelers played themselves into a challenge yesterday, falling behind by 11 points, 31-20, before rallying to win.

The Steelers have won three straight and five of their past six games. They are confident but also cognizant that Oakland is the popular choice to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and the Steelers are among a pack of possible contenders.

This, said von Oelhoffen, is good.

"Always," he said. "We, as a team, play best when we are challenged; when we are behind the 8-ball. That's just the way we are.

"You tell us we can't do something, we will do it."

Wayne Gandy, whose play at offensive tackle yesterday helped the Steelers pile up 175 rushing yards, was bemused by his team's fall from preseason pick to make the Super Bowl to just another playoff participant.

"Even today, when they went up 31-20, people started leaving and booing," Gandy said. "I'm sitting there thinking, we've got a quarter left. We could actually win the game. It's only 11 points."

Similarly, Gandy's view of the Super Bowl is this: Why not us?

"When our offense comes to play and we don't turn the ball over, you tell me a team that actually is better than us," he said. "And I don't see anybody."

Plus, Gandy believes the Steelers learned a tough lesson last year, when they didn't handle the favorite role particularly well.

"I think this team has a better feel for it just because of what we went through last year," he said. "We know what to expect now. And we know that it's one game at a time. If you win one game, that doesn't mean you're going to win the next game. However this shakes out, we will understand that."

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