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BOB RYAN

Again, Cowher is on the hot seat

PITTSBURGH -- No one likes to frame it this way around here, but among the things the hometown Steelers will be playing for today is Bill Cowher's reputation.

Woe be the mentor if the Steelers don't at least win this game against the Jets (We'll address next week next week). It doesn't matter if a loss were by 1 point or 50; if the Steelers don't win today people will undoubtedly say Cowher messed up again, Cowher didn't know how to prepare them again, and the Steelers let us down again. If the Steelers don't beat the Jets, this area will be wallowing in self-pity.

Football is to Pittsburgh as baseball is to Boston, and by going 15-1, with 14 consecutive victories, the Steelers have mercilessly teased their loyal fandom. With a well-balanced offense and a killer defense, the Steelers were the class of the NFL this season. It's all set up for them to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1996.

Now, the "but."

OK, the "but" is that the last trip to the Super Bowl was at variance with the Cowher-era norm. During his tenure, the Steelers are far more noted for what they have not accomplished in the postseason than for what they have. They had a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs in 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2001, and did not reach the Super Bowl in any of those seasons. The one time they did get to the Super Bowl under Cowher was as a lower seed (i.e., with no pressure).

The last capital D, Disappointment came in 2001, when they lost a 24-17 affair to the Patriots (Surely you remember Drew Bledsoe coming off the bench to throw a touchdown pass in relief of Tom Brady, no?).

Twenty men who played in that game, plus two who were on injured reserve, return from that frustrating loss to the Patriots, a game that was won by New England's special teams. They may say they have "put it behind them," but it's more likely they will have it squarely in front of them as they and the newcomers take the field as 8 1/2-point favorites over the New York Jets. Those 15 wins were nice, but now it's win-or-go-home time, as they know only too well.

Standing in their way today is a Jets team that should be very thankful to be here. If Marty "Coach of the Year" Schottenheimer had not gone into brain lock after his team had arrived at the Jets' 23-yard line in last Saturday's overtime, or had he made sure the ball had remained in the middle of the field, his kicker would have had a more makeable field goal than the right-hash-mark 40-yarder he missed. Any Jets fan who thinks his team truly deserves to be here after watching that is a hopeless homer.

But they are here, and Cowher is paying them full public respect. Sample: "They have some big-play wide receivers in [Justin] McCareins and [Santana] Moss, two quality backs, a veteran quarterback who sees the field as well as anybody in the league . . . The front four are as formidable as any that we will play, particularly those two guys inside -- [Jason] Ferguson and [Dewayne] Robertson -- they are loads . . . They are a top-notch team."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Jets are pretty good. Good, not great. Good and beatable. It doesn't matter. To anyone in Pittsburgh, this game is all about the Steelers. When you are 15-1, it's supposed to be about You, not the unfortunate wild-card team that got here by winning a game both squads deserved to lose.

This is all about the Steelers, all right. It's about a punishing running game and a super corps of wide receivers, a very aggressive front seven, and, of course, a rookie quarterback who still doesn't know what it feels like to lose an NFL game (he replaced the injured Tommy Maddox and won 13 straight).

A lot of people think the biggest "if" surrounding the Steelers is that young man. Ben Roethlisberger will be attempting to become only the second pure first-year quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game when he trots onto Heinz Field today. Some folks assume his carriage will turn into a pumpkin late this afternoon.

Bill Cowher is not one of those people. "I don't look at it that way," Cowher insists. "To me, there are no rookies anymore. We have played almost two college seasons already. This is our football team, and this is how we got here. We have an identity right now, with players who have roles on this team, and we need everybody to play up to the level that put us in this position. No one excluded. I don't differentiate rookies from guys who have been here nine years."

That sounds very strident. The fact is that Roethlisberger had a rough outing against the Jets during his team's 17-6 triumph Dec. 12. The kid QB was 9 of 19 for 144 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. But he won, anyway. "Obviously, we did some things well defensively . . . but in the end he made some big pass plays," says Jets coach Herman Edwards. "He made the big plays that were necessary to win the game."

Then again, note that the Jets only scored 6 points. That's part of the reality of playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Moving the ball against the Steelers is not easy. They led the league by allowing just 251 points, and they gave up 744 fewer yards than the Jets. Young Roethlisberger is never asked to win the game by himself, not when the Pittsburgh offense starts with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley combining for 1,771 yards on the ground. He could probably get by with average receivers, but what he's got is a dream trio in Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Antwaan Randle El. There go 158 receptions, 2,303 yards, and 12 touchdowns.

With all this production on both sides of the ball, you don't think people around here will blame the players if the Steelers lose? No, they'll look to the man who has been on the sidelines since 1992 and who has presided over many more postseason days of anguish than ones of ecstasy. If the Steelers lose, the players will go home. Bill Cowher will be the one standing at a podium tomorrow, explaining what went wrong -- again.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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