Bill Cowher knows a thing or two when it comes to proving people wrong. An undersized college linebacker who went undrafted, Cowher battled and ultimately earned a spot on the Browns’ 53-man roster. As the Steelers’ head coach, Cowher’s Steelers nearly upset the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX as a 13.5-point underdog. A decade later, his team made history by becoming the first sixth seed to win the Super Bowl.
The Hall of Fame coach laughed when he was told of Ben Roethlisberger’s “we don’t have a chance” comments leading up to Pittsburgh’s wild-card game against Kansas City. The game is a rematch of the Chiefs’ 36-10 win over the Steelers back in Week 16, an outcome that likely contributed to the Steelers’ being a 12.5-point underdog. Cowher, whose 2005 team upset the Colts in the playoffs after losing soundly in Indianapolis during the regular season, feels that the Steelers are in a better position having already played the Chiefs this season.
“You play a team a second time, there’s a little familiarity with that,” Cowher said this week. “I think the familiarity really benefits the team that loses. It slows down a little bit the more you play a team. That’s why you see all these close divisional games because they know each other so well. Playing a team for a second time is like that divisional game.
“I expect this game to be a lot closer.”
Cowher feels that Pittsburgh’s prior experience on defense should help them handle the speed of the Chiefs’ offense, led by Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. While they have had their struggles this season (especially against the run), Cowher pointed to the Steelers’ defense — specifically T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden — as a reason why he expects a more competitive game. Cowher also alluded to the Steelers’ young playmakers on offense, specifically rookies Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth. Harris ran for 93 yards against a Chiefs defense that finished 31st in the NFL in average yards-per-carry allowed. Freiermuth was inactive for the game as he was in the concussion protocol.
Cowher also acknowledged that Roethlisberger will “have to play his best game” while avoiding costly mistakes. Pittsburgh committed three turnovers in their first game against Kansas City. They did not force a turnover on defense after collecting four in their upset win over the Titans the previous week.
“They cannot turn the football over,” Cowher said. “That is the biggest thing, I think, going into this game. Find a way to keep it close going into the fourth quarter and all of a sudden, the pressure now goes to Kansas City. And having one of the best field goal kickers in the league (Chris Boswell), one of the best fourth quarter quarterbacks in the league. If they get this game to the fourth quarter, they may have a chance.”
Steelers players, from Roethlisberger to Heyward to receiver Diontae Johnson, have embraced their role of heavy underdog during sessions with the media. The approach is similar to the way Cowher handled similar situations during his 15 years as the Steelers’ coach.
“Every game when I coached, I tried to make it personal,” he said. “You want to go to something where you can challenge the players and make it personal. There’s nothing more, I would say, almost offensive as to be a double-digit underdog when you make the playoffs. Like, ‘Wow, you really don’t think we’re that good, do you.’ This is very easy for Mike Tomlin to make this game personal. I think that’s what Ben was alluding to. ‘OK, no one is giving us a chance. So we don’t really have anything to lose. So let’s go in there and have fun and play this game.’
“The fun part is being able to prove people wrong. To do something no one thinks you can do. There’s no greatest satisfaction in sports than doing something that no one thinks you can do.”
Unlike the 2005 team, this Steelers team does not have a lot of playoff experience sans Roethlisberger and Heyward. Conversely, the Steelers’ opponent has a wealth of postseason experience having played in the last two Super Bowls. That being said, Cowher feels that the Steelers’ veteran leaders should be able to get the message across to their younger teammates about what it means to play and have success in the postseason.
“There’s a different pace to the game that happens when you get to playoff time,” Cowher said. “Everything kind of gets amplified up one notch. If you’ve been there before, you understand that and you try to relay that to your teammates. The night before the game, the guys who have been there before, who have been to championships and have won a Super Bowl, they can talk about what it takes in the playoffs to get there, because everyone starts 0-0, and now is the time that real football starts.”