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By Jay Cost

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Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go!

In just a few days, the Pittsburgh Steelers will take on the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The Steelers, who are favored to win, were the first franchise to have won four Super Bowls. If they win on Sunday, they will be the first and only to have won six.

I have been following the Steelers since the beginning of the Cowher era, and impressionistically this is the best Steelers defense I have ever seen. Numerically, this impression has merit. The '08 defense allowed on average 237.2 yards per game and 13.9 points per game. That yards per game stat is better than any defense from the Cowher era (though the '01 Steelers allowed slightly fewer points per game). In fact, the only Steelers defense since the merger to allow fewer yards per game was the '74 defense.

So, as all-time great Steelers defenses go, this one has to rank up there with the very best of them. Unfortunately for Steelers Nation, this is not a guarantee of victory. Ask lifelong Pittsburghers about great Steelers teams of yore, and you should get an answer that might surprise you. Though the '74, '75, '78, and '79 teams won Super Bowls, many think the '76 team was the best ever. That team led the league in rushing behind the dual attack of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, both of whom ran for over 1,000 yards. Meanwhile, the defense was preternaturally good. It led the league in total defense and rush defense, and allowed just 9.9 points per game. The '76 team started out 1-4, then went on a 9-game winning streak, posting four shutouts along the way. They didn't allow a touchdown in 22 consecutive quarters, or in eight of those nine games. In the postseason, the Steelers crushed the Colts at Baltimore, 40-14, but Harris and Bleier were injured in the game. The next week, Oakland defeated the Steelers handily, 24-7.

Football is a cruel sport in that way - the team that posts the best numbers doesn't always win the championship. Just ask the '07 Patriots.

This '08 team has a troubled offense, which posted just 21.7 points per game and 311.9 yards per game. This is the worst showing by a Steelers offense since the '03 season, when they went 6-10 under Tommy Maddox. Ben Roethlisberger might look great on Sports Center highlights, but the fact is that his play this season has been average at best. His completion and efficiency ratings are down, his touchdown passes are way down, his interceptions are up, and he is still getting sacked as many times as ever. Big Ben has to shoulder much of the blame, but a lot of it falls on the offensive line, which has missed Alan Faneca this year. Plus, thanks to injury, Willie Parker has had his worst season to date.

Of course, when you have a defense that is this good, a weak offense isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. Compare, for instance, the championship '74 Steelers against the '08 Steelers. They look almost identical on both sides of the ball:

Steelers - 1974 vs. 2008.jpg

Changes in the game make it tricky to do direct comparisons, but the '74 Steelers were a relatively unbalanced team: fantastic on defense, but limited on offense (passing was the problem that season). If the '08 Steelers win, they would fall into the same category.

Frankly, I didn't think my beloved Steelers would make it this far. Like everybody else in town, I was peeved last summer to learn that they had the hardest schedule in football. They fell to the Eagles, the Giants, the Colts, and the Titans in the regular season. But their postseason schedule has been as easy as the regular season was hard. Amazingly, they didn't have to play any of these four squads in the playoffs, though all four made it into the playoffs. Instead, they got a game against the 8-8 Chargers, and then the Ravens. The latter is a fantastic team, but historically the Steelers have dominated their division rivals in the playoffs.

Now, the Steelers play a 9-7 team from the NFC West that nobody thought anything of until a few weeks ago. They're in the playoffs because somebody from the NFC West gets to go every year, and they were the only team with a winning record. They've had a good run in the playoffs, and now face the Steelers in the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance.

Actually, the Steelers have faced such a foe before. In the 1980 Super Bowl they played the L.A. Rams. The Rams were 9-7, the only team in the NFC West with a winning record. They beat Dallas and Tampa Bay on the road, then went on to Super Bowl XIV. The Steelers won by 12 points, but trailed as late as the fourth quarter before Terry Bradshaw connected with John Stallworth on a 73-yard touchdown pass, and then again on a 45-yard pass that set up a 1-yard TD run by Harris.

So, as playoff runs go, this year's has been about as easy as the Steelers have ever had it. No Vikings or Cowboys in the Super Bowl, no Raiders or Oilers or Colts or Patriots on the way to it. This is a game they should win.

Go cage those birdies, Black 'n' Gold, and bring home the one for the other thumb!

-Jay Cost