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Cowher looks a lot smarter after getting back to Super Bowl

Associated Press

Denver — Bill Belichick was too smart, and Tom Brady and John Elway were too good.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher made it to the AFC championship game five times, an enviable record for any coach. The problem: He lost four times, and some in Pittsburgh became convinced the Belichicks and Elways weren't the problem, but that not-good-enough-Bill was.

Great regular-season coach? For sure — Cowher is among the top 15 in NFL career victories. Get him in the playoffs, against the top coaches, and he'll be overmatched.

But no other coach accomplished what Cowher did with a 34-17 AFC championship victory Sunday in Denver: Take a sixth-seeded team on the road and beat the Nos. 1, 2 and 3-seeded teams to reach the Super Bowl.

The Steelers' surprise advance to only their second Super Bowl in 26 years offers some redemption for Cowher, who acknowledged after last year's 41-27 AFC title game loss to New England at home that not winning a Super Bowl was a "void" in his career.

Even the team's patient-as-Job ownership put some pressure on Cowher after the Steelers missed out after going 15-1 last season. Shortly after that latest disappointment, team president Art Rooney said, "It's time for us to win another Super Bowl."

Funny, but Cowher looks a whole lot smarter now after taking the Steelers to Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver in successive weeks and winning, twice by two-touchdown margins.

The 48-year-old Cowher still hasn't won that Super Bowl — he'll get a chance two weeks from now in Detroit against Seattle. But some of his own players are wondering how many other coaches could have rallied their teams from a 7-5 record to seven consecutive victories, five on the road.

"He's been criticized for not being able to win the big one and not being able to get back to the Super Bowl, so I think it's great," running back Jerome Bettis said after the Steelers' first road AFC title game win in 31 years.

"He's been supportive of us when we failed and didn't get things done, and it's just great that we've been able to win and get another opportunity to give him another crack at the Super Bowl."

Cowher, whose Steelers lost the Super Bowl to Dallas 27-17 in January 1996, said the big-game losing "hasn't gnawed at me. I don't want other people to be stuck to me. You can say anything you want about me and the failures I've had."

Several players said Cowher's ability to keep the team together following their third successive loss, 38-31 to Cincinnati on Dec. 4, was the key to them starting their winning streak a week later against the Bears. They haven't lost since.

"He did a really good job of making sure we were focused, making sure we had good weeks of practice, making it tough on us," All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said. "You have to focus more on the road, where things don't come as easily, where you have the crowd noise to deal with."

Added linebacker Larry Foote: "When we were 7-5, doubt was starting to creep in and we had to fight it. But he made us take it one game at a time, and next thing we won three in a row, four in a row, five in a row ..."

As the Steelers transformed from a team that couldn't win playoff games at home — they are 1-4 in AFC title games there since the 1994 season — to one that felt it couldn't lose on the road, Cowher changed, too.

A coach who often seemed to play not to lose rather than to win turned second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger loose, letting him pass much more than before early in games. He also let offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt open up the playbook, with gadget plays and previously unseen formations.

During a 21-18 divisional playoff win at Indianapolis last week, a once-conservative Cowher went for it twice on fourth-and-short. That impressed his players, who felt Cowher was showing his confidence in them by gambling.

Now, the challenge is to win the Super Bowl — something the Steelers haven't done since the 1979 season, way back in the Bradshaw, Franco and Mean Joe Greene days. Oh, yeah, the Chuck Noll days, too — as they talk about in Pittsburgh all the time, Noll won four Super Bowls and Cowher has won none.

"We need to go to work and win one more game," Cowher said. "No one ever remembers who lost the Super Bowl."

Not quite true. In Pittsburgh, they do.

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