PITTSBURGH – After dispatching the Baltimore Ravens, 31-24, in the AFC Divisional round on Saturday, it appeared the Pittsburgh Steelers were headed to New England for a date with the mighty Patriots.
They should have known better.
After all, this is becoming old hat in the Steel City, isn't it? Clearly, they know the drill by now: Get the No. 2 seed in the AFC, watch the No. 1 seed fall flat, then get the AFC Championship game in their backyard.
In fact — thanks to the New York Jets (13-5) and their 28-21 upset of the Patriots on Sunday — the Steelers (13-4) will get to host the title game for the fourth consecutive time that they've been a No. 2 seed.
Pretty strange, indeed. But, hey, the Steelers aren't about to complain.
"It's better to play at home," safety Ryan Clark said. "It's huge."
And doesn't that represent a change of heart in the Steelers locker room? After the win over Baltimore? Sure. Players characteristically were noncommittal about the next opponent. But now that they know it's New York, and that it's at Heinz Field? Different story.
"It's good because you get to do the same routine," Clark said. "Going on the road, and having to pack up? Fly? That's the part of home-field advantage that I don't think people understand. You've got the big locker room, not the small one they put you in when you're on the road. It's just little things like that that mean a lot as far as home games go. We're excited."
They should be.
The Steelers, after all, have played in eight AFC title games over the past 17 years, and all but one has been staged on Pittsburgh's North Shore. To put that in perspective, no other team can match hosting the AFC Championship seven times over the entire course of the game's history, dating back to 1970. And five AFC franchises — including, yes, the Jets — have never even played one title game at home.
"It would have felt like a home game anyway, because (Steelers fans) travel so well," Clark said. "But we'd rather have it here with the black-and-gold seats."
Clark — like all but one defensive starter — was on the 2008 team that was a No. 2 seed and hosted the title game when the Ravens beat the Tennessee Titans the week before. That Pittsburgh team went on to win the Super Bowl, a 27-23 decision over the Arizona Cardinals.
The No. 2 seed trick surfaced in 1996 and 1998, as well, although the Steelers split those two title games played at Three Rivers Stadium. In fact, hosting doesn't always translate into success, especially when you consider that Pittsburgh has lost four of six home title games since 1994.
But, to be clear, playing in Pittsburgh sure beats the alternative, doesn't it?
"Heck yeah," rookie center Maurkice Pouncey said. "That's awesome. We're here with our great fans and have another exciting game on Sunday."
This is the 11th time the Steelers will host a conference championship game. It's also the 15th they will play in. Both are league records. But you won't hear this team bragging about that this week.
"We just go about our business and prepare the right way to play a football game," Pouncey said. "We don't do a lot of talking."
Their opponent? Well, they take a different approach.
Jets coach Rex Ryan has caused a ruckus each of the past two weeks, singling out a "personal" rivalry against the opposition. First, it was the Indianapolis Colts. Next, it was the Patriots.
Along the way, his players have joined in. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie even used an expletive to describe Patriots quarterback Tom Brady last week.
But the Steelers maintain they won't be dragged into it.
"We don't pay attention," Pouncey said. "It don't bother us at all. Let them talk."
They probably will, especially considering the Jets posted a 22-17 season-saving win over the Steelers at Heinz Field four weeks ago. In the victory, New York ran for 106 yards against the NFLs best rushing defense en route to ending a two-game losing streak.
That might give the road team a little leverage in the war of words this week.
But again, that's all well and good to the Steelers. Sunday is all that matters to them.
"You know, they had storylines in the other places," Clark said, referring to the Jets' first two opponents. "We don't. There's just not good storylines between us.
"The only storyline we have is six (Lombardi) trophies. And we're trying to get another one. That's all we're working towards."