When the Steelers skulked off their home field after a loss to Cincinnati Dec. 4, their third straight defeat, Ben Roethlisberger still was more likely to become a Super Bowl quarterback than Miss America. Barely.
At least the Steelers were still playoff-eligible. Barely.
Pittsburgh was 7-5, tied with four other teams for the 12th-best record in the NFL, making their postseason hopes slim and their margin for error none. As it turned out, another loss would have knocked them out of the playoffs.
The Steelers haven't lost since.
They reeled off seven straight wins, including a history-making run through the top three seeds in the AFC, and next up is Seattle, the NFC's top seed, in Super Bowl XL Feb. 5 in Detroit.
The 23-year-old Roethlisberger could become the youngest quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.
''I knew we could do it, and I thought we would do it," Roethlisberger said as he sat in front of his locker Sunday following the 34-17 win over Denver in the AFC Championship game. ''We had nothing to lose."
Another loss and the Steelers would have lost the opportunity.
Pittsburgh didn't even earn a playoff berth until a season-ending win over Detroit. The three-game losing streak -- losses to Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati -- almost ruined the season.
''We weren't really in synch," coach Bill Cowher said yesterday. ''We played well on defense for those three; we didn't play well on offense.
''At that point we had to get in synch. We had no margin of error. We knew we had some pretty good offenses coming up so we had to play better. We just started to get a little more confident. We cut down on the turnovers, cut down on the penalties, started playing better in the kicking game. Those were the things bothering us in the three-game [slide]."
Even when Pittsburgh was at its most desperate, the Steelers figured they were different from your average team struggling to make the playoffs.
They were coming off a 15-1 season. They basically gave away a couple of home games, they lost two games Roethlisberger didn't start because of a knee injury, and two more when he was still hampered by the injury.
''There were games there that we easily could have won," linebacker Joey Porter said. ''Jacksonville, we had that game, Cincinnati, we had that game, New England, we had that game, and Baltimore, we had that game. So we easily could have been 15-1.
''But you lose some. The ball didn't bounce our way for those times. But just because we lost those close games, [the media] felt like we weren't a good football team. That just gave us extra motivation to fight harder for each other."
It started with a trek through the NFC North, with the Steelers beating up on Chicago, Minnesota, and Detroit in the final month of the season. With a 41-0 romp over Cleveland sprinkled in for good measure.
They have been even more impressive in playoff wins at Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Denver.
The ''us against the world" approach has served the Steelers well. In the locker room at Invesco Field, they were openly campaigning for oddsmakers to make them the underdogs in the Super Bowl. It didn't work, as they are 4-point favorites over the Seahawks.
But their status as the first No. 6 seed and just the second team to win three road games (joining the 1985 Patriots) to advance to the Super Bowl is enough to give them the small-fry feeling. And they'll play up the road status again, as yesterday Cowher announced that despite being designated the home team, the Steelers will don their road white jerseys for the game.
''We're not playing at Heinz Field, so if we're not playing at Heinz Field, to me, that's an away game," Cowher said. ''I think anyone can understand that rationale. That's what I was thinking. If it's a sensitive issue to people, I'm sorry.
''We've been playing well the last three weeks on the road. This is the fourth game on the road. I don't know if it's superstitious, but that's what I'm thinking."
The road has been kind to Cowher of late (five straight wins). In 13 years as a head coach, he never had won a road playoff game, and his teams had lost three straight AFC Championship games at home.
He said the proverbial backs-against-the-wall situation helped the Steelers peak at the right time.
''We had to. The path that we had to take didn't allow us not to," Cowher said. ''The short-term focus has allowed us to get where we are. I think it's going to be important that we re-establish that mind-set. The deal is not done. With each step it's going to get harder and harder.
''Without a doubt, this will be the toughest challenge we've had to this point. This is a supreme team that has the same aspirations that we do. They're playing with a high level of confidence. That's why it's going to be a big challenge for our team.
''We've created a golden opportunity for ourselves but we have not done anything. That's the thing that we have to make sure we keep in mind because some people will give you kudos, and with two weeks to go they can talk about all the things that we've done well, but that can all change with one play, with one quarter or one bad game."
The Steelers have managed to avoid that bad game for two months. Can they do it one more time?
''When you've been in the league this long, you understand that it isn't over yet," offensive lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen said. ''There's still another game. Nothing changed from six weeks ago to now. Our goal isn't to get to the Super Bowl, it's to win the Super Bowl."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at email@example.com