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Steelers Last postseason motivated '01 Steelers

Friday, January 11, 2002

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Just as they did last season, the Steelers will be home watching the wild-card playoff games this weekend. Unlike last season, they won't be experiencing the same feelings of failure, disappointment, even envy.

"I remember that pain in my stomach, watching Baltimore play, watching Oakland play, those teams that we beat," said wide receiver Hines Ward.

Then, holding his fingers less than an inch apart, Ward added, "We were that far [away]. We had to win nine of our last 13 and depend on other people. A lot of people took it upon themselves to come back this year and not have to depend on anybody. And we went out and controlled our own destiny."

Beginning tomorrow, the Steelers will watch the New York Jets play the Oakland Raiders in the first of two American Football Conference playoff games this week. Sunday, they'll watch the Miami Dolphins play host to the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

But, unlike last season, they'll be watching the games with a measure of satisfaction, knowing they accomplished what they set out to do during the 16-game regular season. And, more important, they'll be watching to get a better understanding of the team they will play Jan. 20 in their first-round playoff game at Heinz Field.

Those are among the spoils that go with winning the AFC Central Division with a 13-3 record and gaining the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

"It feels good to be in this position where we don't have to depend on anybody," Ward said. "It's on our shoulders, how far we go. It's much more exciting than being at home right now."

"This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said wide receiver Plaxico Burress. "You got two games to get to the Super Bowl and you're there."

"That was probably the best thing to happen to us," said safety Lee Flowers, referring to missing the playoffs last season, despite finishing 9-7 and winning four of their final five games. "We regrouped in the off-season. Guys came up here three weeks earlier than we were supposed to and really worked hard. I think that's why we're in the situation we're in right now."

The Steelers could know their first-round playoff opponent as early as tomorrow night. If the Jets (10-6) beat the Raiders (10-6), they will come to Heinz Field next Sunday to face the Steelers in a 12:30 p.m. game. But, if the Raiders beat the Jets, the Steelers will play the winner of the Ravens-Dolphins game.

"You want to find out, just as well as anybody else, who you play," said inside linebacker Earl Holmes. "If we do play Baltimore [or] the Jets, we faced them before; and, if we do play Miami, you're a step ahead, at least, because we had a chance to watch them on television."

The Steelers are using the bye week to prepare for each of their three possible opponents. After working on the Ravens on Wednesday, the Steelers practiced yesterday against the Jets' schemes and will prepare for the Dolphins tomorrow.

The Steelers played the Ravens twice this season -- losing to them, 13-10, at home Nov. 4, the game in which Kris Brown missed four field goals; and beating them, 26-21, in Baltimore Dec. 16. They also beat the Jets, 18-7, at Heinz Field Dec. 9, New York's only road loss this season (7-1). The Steelers did not play the Dolphins.

Counting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7), who play a wild-card game in Philadelphia tomorrow, the Steelers are 3-1 this season against NFL playoff teams. The Steelers beat the Buccaneers, 17-10, in Tampa Oct. 21.

"I don't think it really matters who we play," Burress said. "Going on the road, playing at home, as far as the AFC Central is concerned, we play defense over here. People don't realize, this right here is the black and blue division. You got us, you got Baltimore, Tennessee, Cincinnati is pretty good. In this division, you have to go out and play every Sunday."

But not everybody will be watching the playoff games, trying to get an early look at next week's opponent.

"I won't, not at all," Flowers said. "We're the team to beat. Teams need to look at us. The only thing I'm concerned with is the 52 guys in this locker room. When we play our best football, there's no team that can beat us. And we still haven't played our best game yet."

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