Colts, Steelers understand importance of home field
Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
INDIANAPOLIS - Tony Dungy spent a quarter-century chasing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs before he finally earned it.
He doesn't intend to let that reward slip away today against his old team, Pittsburgh, in the divisional playoffs.
"It's our opportunity to do something special and cap off a year that's been really good for us," Dungy said. "That's what it's all about."
Conventional wisdom suggests the RCA Dome is the Colts' ticket to Detroit.
In past years, Indianapolis (14-2) has contended with snow, wind, rain and cold weather in January. It was shut out at New York in 2003, then lost at New England each of the past two years in inclement weather.
Critics contended after those losses that the only way the high-scoring Colts would reach the Super Bowl was to stay indoors.
Mission accomplished - even the Super Bowl is in a dome this year.
"I've never said that we have to be indoors, but that has been said by people," two-time MVP Peyton Manning said. "I agree totally with coach Dungy, that it doesn't matter where you play, you've got to be ready to play."
Playing at home does provide some advantages, especially when it comes to crowd noise inside a dome.
The Steelers (12-5) struggled to hear snap counts in November during their first trip to Indy. They were called for false starts several times, and got out of sync early. Pittsburgh lost that one 26-7 and afterward complained the Colts were piping in artificial noise over the speakers to make it tougher.
Irritated fans are likely to raise the decibel level even more today, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Pittsburgh needs to execute better this time.
"We're going to have to be on our 'A' game and do the best we can to communicate with each other," he said.
As the Steelers know all too well, though, there are no guarantees in the playoffs.
Last week, three of the four road teams - including Pittsburgh - won wild-card games. Last year, Pittsburgh lost the AFC championship game at home, and during Bill Cowher's tenure the Steelers are 1-4 in AFC title games at home.
So what's the advantage? Earning a bye.
"I don't remember losing too many games coming off the bye," Cowher said, when asked if the Colts might be rusty after a one-week break. "Of course, we've lost that next game a few times."
The question now is whether the Colts can take advantage of playing at home.
"I think it will be an advantage for us, but it's not going to get you third-and-1 or a touchdown," Manning said. "But guys, I think, do feel more comfortable at home."
The bye gave some Colts a chance to get healthy.
After resting about half of his defensive starters during the final two regular-season games, Dungy said all of the Colts' key defensive players - Corey Simon, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Cato June and Bob Sanders - should be ready today.
The Colts also will have starting right tackle Ryan Diem back - Diem has been out since spraining a knee ligament in a Dec. 18 loss to San Diego. Manning said his arm appreciated the break, too.
"The arm does feel live now, which is great for this late in the season," Manning said.
If any team has the right formula for winning on the road, though, it is the Steelers.
Their punishing ground game, led by Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, and stingy defense allow them to control the clock and the tempo, and to quiet crowds. The Steelers were 6-2 on the road this year, and beat Cincinnati 31-17 last week for their first road playoff win since December 1989.
Six weeks ago, though, nothing went right for the Steelers in Indy. The Colts scored on their first offensive play, shut down the running game and forced Pittsburgh to play catch-up all night.
This time, Roethlisberger and left tackle Marvel Smith are healthy, and the Steelers think they have the right motivation, too.
"When you're that No. 1 seed, teams are gunning for you, everybody wants to be that team to knock you off," receiver Hines Ward said. "For us, we get a chance to face the No. 1 team for a second time this year, so let's see what happens."
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