The 2011 NFL postseason has read more like the outline of a television drama series heading into summer sweeps. Ironically, it's getting closer and closer to reading exactly like the short-lived Playmakers television series that ESPN debuted in 2003. Although highly watched, it was cancelled quickly due to outside pressure from the NFL and the portrayal of the league's image and players.
How laughable as time goes on.
In 2012, sensational has become the key word of description when examining the events that have transpired since the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. With news stories like Tim Tebow, night club incidents, concussion debates, Bounty Gate, player lawsuits and Peyton Manning, the NFL's offseason has become more intriguing than some other sports' current season activities.
All thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the NFL and the worldwide media machine that can churn, spin and spit a story far quicker than they ever could even 10 years ago. You would almost think this was the brainchild of William Randolph Hurst and Aaron Spelling since it's grown into such a dramatic media tabloid scrapbook.
And then, like Warren G. Harding proclaimed in the 1920 presidential election, there was a "return to normalcy" in a way. The NFL released its schedule for the 2012 regular season. Not a massively suspenseful moment, but one that doesn't come with story lines or dramatic and haranguing debates among NFL pundits.
Who am I kidding? It's like dropping the firework into the toilet and then bolting. If anything, the releasing of the NFL schedule creates more discussion and raging debate amongst the storylines already circulating this offseason.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' schedule right off the bat marks their travel to Mile High Stadium, where Peyton Manning in a Broncos jersey plays his first game since the end of the 2010 season. That's an instant ratings bonanza, clearly based upon the playoff loss the Steelers suffered at the hands of the Broncos last year as well as the renewed Manning saga of redemption after being cast away by the Colts.
But the most intriguing matchup comes further down the schedule, all the way in Week 15. Pittsburgh and Dallas. Steelers and Cowboys. It's like instant chill bumps. The history, the championships, the legacy, the fanbases. It's as stacked as Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales wrestling at Shea Stadium in 1972.
With a lot of attention in recent years focused on the renewed success of the Packers and Bears, the general feeling is that the NFC North carries the league's biggest rivalry of all-time. You can grant them the fact that the league kind of began with their rivalry almost a century ago, and their franchises have become iconic fixtures of the NFL.
Then again, so have the Steelers and Cowboys. More-so the latter of the above statement. On the one side, you have Steeler Nation. You can Google it and usually find some kind of bar or restaurant that caters to Steelers games in your area. It's everywhere. You can take a Sunday stroll through a crowded mall, and someone is going to be decked out in the Pittsburgh garb.
On the other side is America's Team. At various points in NFL history, the most beloved team in the country and others the most despised. As a child growing up in the 90's, I was privy to both at the same time. But with a new stadium, a quarterback on the cusp and a constant sense of "this is the year," if anything, the dichotomy of Cowboy fandom is as strong as ever.
Thirty times, the Steelers and Cowboys have played one another, including the regular season and the three Super Bowls. Fifteen wins to the Steelers. Fifteen to the Cowboys. It doesn't get much closer than that.
From when the series began in 1960 through 1965, the Steelers held an edge on the Cowboys, with seven wins to the Cowboys four. But by 1965, the combination of Tom Landry finding the right mix of players for his innovative 4-3 defense and the Steelers spiraling into the cellar of the league in terms of talent, the Cowboys won the next seven contests through 1972. (The '72 season saw Dallas win its first of five Super Bowls.)
But the Steelers would turn their sour luck around after 1972, and with a roster that proves to be its own wing of Canton Ohio, the Steel Curtain began to not only dominate the entire league, but take control of their series with the Cowboys.
After their meeting in 1972, they would not play again until January 18, 1976. Super Bowl X. A game that featured the aforementioned (and defending champion) Steel Curtain and Dallas' famed Doomsday Defense. Terry Bradshaw throwing against Roger Staubach. Lynn Swann going catch for catch against Drew Pearson. Ed "Too Tall" Jones and "Mean" Joe Greene trading big hits.
Arguably, up to its point, the most star studded Super Bowl in history. A game that came down to one last drive for the Cowboys and a last attempt to get the ball into the end zone. But Staubach's heave for paydirt designated for Percy Howard was tipped into the waiting arms of Steeler Glen Edwards, sealing Pittsburgh's second consecutive Super Bowl victory.
From 1976 on to 1982, the Steelers asserted their dominance over the Cowboys, and they would rematch in Super Bowl XIII in 1979, another nail-biting finish that sometimes is more remembered for the catch that Jackie Smith didn't make for the Cowboys rather than the receiving display put on by Swann and John Stallworth for the Steelers. Once again, the Steelers were world champions. Their third of the decade. And they would go back-to-back again the year following.
The 1980's saw a transitional period for both teams, as the decade would be dominated by the other franchises in the NFC and AFC. After the 1982 game, they would play again in 1985 and 1988, splitting both games.
By the end of the decade, Chuck Knoll and Tom Landry had been replaced by Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson, and then both teams were on the rise. The Cowboys' rise just happened to be a bit more meteoric.
Behind the success of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, the Cowboys won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1993 and 1994 and had the Steelers' number through their four victories from 1991 through 1997. The game in 1996 would be their NFL record third meeting in the Super Bowl, which finally saw the Cowboys on the back of two unlikely Larry Brown interceptions upend the Steelers and capture their third Super Bowl in four years.
Seven years would go by, and again, the teams would transition. As Aikman, Smith and Irvin would ride off into the sunset, the Steelers too would begin to assemble its next core of marquee players. By their meeting again in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger had ascended to the role of starting quarterback, Jerome Bettis was entering his final years as their backfield general and Troy Polamalu and James Harrison were just beginning to redefine the revamped Steeler defense. The Steelers snapped their four-game losing streak against the Cowboys, winning 24-20.
Their last meeting up to now would occur in December of 2008 at Heinz Field, which saw Tony Romo become a part of the storied Steelers-Cowboys rivalry, and he was greeted by three Steeler interceptions en route to a 20-13 Pittsburgh victory. The Steelers would go on to win Super Bowl XLIV over the Arizona Cardinals and move ahead of the Cowboys in Lombardi trophies, six to five.
And again, four years later, on December 16, 2012, six days before the entire world supposedly comes to an end, the Steelers and Cowboys will square off for the 31st time. The game to break the tie to be played in the "House That Jerry Built." Some pundits point to this as a possible Super Bowl matchup this year as well.
Regardless of whether that prediction comes true, the NFL and its fans will once again bear witness to a rivalry that will find new life with a mix of new blood and a little bit of old as well, carrying on the legacy of some of the all-time greatest players and coaches from both sides.
If holdouts and injuries do not play a hand, Roethlisberger and Romo will again be guiding the offenses with their respective deep threats of Mike Wallace and Dez Bryant along with go-to tight ends Heath Miller and Jason Witten. Rashard Mendenhall and DeMarco Murray will be coming out of the backfield, and the defenses will again feature the likes of Polamalu and Harrison against DeMarcus Ware and first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne.
Maybe it's both good and bad that the Steelers and Cowboys play only once every four years. On the one hand, such a storied and historical rivalry should be a focus of every NFL season, but then again, playing once every so often makes each game that more special.
Two cities that couldn't be more different geographically, demographically, even stereotypically, but both cloaked in gridiron success that has spanned generations of fans from both sides.
Pittsburgh-Dallas, 2012. Here we go again...