By ASSOCIATED PRESS


PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher was talking to reporters when one mentioned his team scored a season-low seven points in its previous game against the Colts. "Thanks for reminding me. Please don't stop now," Cowher said of that 26-7 loss on Nov. 28.

And the touchdown came with a short field created by an interception.

"Another great point," Cowher said.

The good-natured by-play continued for several minutes, but didn't mask the unspoken theme: It's January, it's the playoffs and that means Cowher's Steelers are supposed to lose -- again.

These circumstances are different than any of Cowher's previous nine playoff appearances in 14 seasons as Pittsburgh's coach. The Steelers are road underdogs against a top-seeded team rather than being a top-seeded favorite so, even if they upset the Colts on Sunday, they can't lose the AFC championship game at home like they've done an unprecedented four times since 1995.

Those losses have forged a belief, not just among their fan base but with some in the sport as well, that Cowher cannot be considered anything more than a very good coach until he wins a Super Bowl. The Steelers made it there 10 years ago this month, but lost to the Cowboys 27-17.

That Cowher is one of football's renowned competitors, with an icy glare that can cause a 300-pound lineman to scurry to the far end of the bench in fright, only exacerbates how he feels about constantly building a winner but not The Winner.

"Everybody hurts when you lose," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "But he takes it hard."

If Cowher coached in a sunny-weather city such as Phoenix or Tampa, with a youthful fan base and a pro football past that can be measured in a few decades and not generations like Pittsburgh's, his January record might not be such a big deal.

But Pittsburgh's aging population and obsessively loyal fans don't forget easily, especially since many still cling to vivid memories of their four Super Bowl wins under Cowher's predecessor, Chuck Noll -- the only other Steelers coach in the last 37 years.

Consider this: Cowher moved into 14th place in NFL career coaching victories this season, one ahead of the Redskins' Joe Gibbs, yet Gibbs has won three Super Bowls and Cowher has won none. Of the 13 coaches ahead of Cowher, nine won at least one NFL title (some coached when there was no Super Bowl) and most have multiple titles.

(Asterisk advisory: the Vikings' Bud Grant won the 1969 NFL title in the last season before the AFL-NFL merger, but lost the Super Bowl to the AFL's Chiefs and three subsequent Super Bowls.)

And the five coaches immediately behind Cowher -- Gibbs, Hank Stram, Mike Holmgren, Weeb Ewbank and Mike Ditka -- all won at least one Super Bowl.

"Life is full of disappointments," Cowher said of the postseason shortcomings. "Sometimes we wonder why. But ours is not to wonder why, ours is to continue to try. We will do that."

It isn't Cowher alone in the Steelers' organization who is getting weary of not winning. Team president Art Rooney said before this season, "I think we all feel like it's time. We've been close and we have to take that last step."

Still, the last step has never seemed longer to Cowher, who has a 9-9 postseason record.

The Steelers' 31-17 victory Sunday in Cincinnati was their first road playoff win under Cowher, but they have never won two road playoff games in the same season in their history. Their four Super Bowl title teams needed to win only one road playoff game among them, the January 1975 AFC championship game in Oakland.

And the Steelers can reach a sixth AFC championship game under Cowher only if they become the first sixth-seeded team to knock off a top-seeded team since the NFL conference playoff field was expanded to six teams in 1990. Until the Steelers beat the Bengals, the 1999 Dolphins had been the only sixth-seeded team to win a wild-card game, and they lost to Jacksonville 62-7 the following week.

Even if the Steelers beat the Colts -- hey, they are 3-0 against them in the postseason -- they would have to beat the second-seeded Broncos or the fourth-seeded Patriots on the road to reach the Super Bowl.

And does anyone in Pittsburgh need reminding of those twin AFC title game losses to the Patriots in January 2002 and 2005?

"We'll show up," Cowher said of the Colts rematch. "We'll be there. Hopefully, we'll be able to do some things better than we did the last time we played them."

And, he did not need to add, do them better than all those other Januarys of years past.

"We understand the level of desperation we need to have," he said.