PITTSBURGH—Winning the Super Bowl three years ago didn't erase one of the lingering questions about the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Why can't they win a championship game at home?
The Steelers of the 1970s thrived on playing title games in now-demolished Three Rivers Stadium, losing to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins in 1972 before winning three AFC championships in three tries during the 1975-79 seasons.
If there was any sight that brought a chill to an opponent back then, it was the thump-thump-thump of all those twirling Terrible Towels during a Pittsburgh playoff game.
Thump, the towels whirled when Terry Bradshaw went deep to John Stallworth. Thump, the towels whirled when Franco Harris ran off-tackle. Thump, the towels whirled when Joe Greene leveled a quarterback.
The Raiders complained of intentionally iced playing fields, and of calls gone wrong — see Immaculate Reception, circa 1972 — but trying to beat the Steelers in an elimination game in Pittsburgh during those days was the quickest route to any opposing player's offseason.
Then, during the 15 years in which the Steelers didn't play host to an AFC championship game, the magic disappeared.
When the Steelers began playing home title games again, home field proved no advantage at all. The Steelers own the NFL's best home-field record since the 1970 merger, yet they are only 1-4 in AFC championship games there since the 1994 season, all under former coach Bill Cowher.
The one conference championship they won at home in the past 29 seasons was something of an underachieving performance, a tight 20-16 win over Indianapolis in January 1996. Those Colts went 9-7 and weren't expected to advance past the wild-card round, much less play for the AFC championship. Pittsburgh went on to lose to Dallas 27-17 in the Super Bowl.
Five of these Steelers were around for the twin AFC title-game losses to the Patriots, during the 2001 (24-17) and 2004 (41-27) seasons.
"I've lost two of these at home. It's not much fun," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "They're going to stay with me the rest of my life. I don't care how many Super Bowls you win, you're not going to forget those championships you lose."
After losing to New England four seasons ago despite having a 16-1 record, the Steelers came back the following season to win three road games in three weeks and the Super Bowl against Seattle. Being on the road, removed from the repeated failures at home, almost seemed like an advantage.
The Steelers, despite being 13-4, would have been on the road for Sunday night's AFC championship game against the Ravens, too, if sixth-seeded Baltimore hadn't upset top-seeded Tennessee 13-10 last weekend.
"I think everybody understands the magnitude of the game, but the young guys might have a hard time understanding what the game's going to be like," Smith said.
"It's going to be the most physical game you've ever played. You're going to be spent, that's what the young guys don't understand," he said.
This will be the Steelers' 14th AFC championship game, matching the record held by the Raiders. Oakland was 1-2 against Pittsburgh when the teams met in AFC title games during the 1974, '75 and '76 seasons.
Temperatures in the low-20s and a chance of snow flurries are predicted for Sunday night's game, or nearly the identical weather as during the Chargers-Steelers divisional game last Sunday.