Across the board, considering all phases of the game, the 2001 Steelers may have been a better team than the Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh squads that would fulfill the dreams of Steeler Nation later in the decade.
However, the difference between now and then was as simple as one word: Roethlisberger.
If No. 7 had played for the '01 squad, a solid team along both lines and with skill talent all over the roster, I shudder to imagine how dominant they may have been.
The 2001 Steelers entered play having missed the playoffs in each of the three previous seasons.
With a brand new field to christen, and a momentous finish to their previous season in which the Steelers narrowly missed the playoffs, Pittsburgh hoped their first year at Heinz Field would be marked by a return to January's sudden-death NFL action.
Things looked grim on opening weekend; the Steelers traveled to Jacksonville and played their typical road game against the Jaguars, losing 21-3.
The offense was anemic, Kordell Stewart looked unsettled, the defense allowed huge plays to the Jags offense (particularly receiver Jimmy Smith) and optimism was certainly quenched.
The loss proved to be a mere aberration. The nation grieved after the events of September 11th, 2001, and myself, like everyone else, had no desire to watch football on the 16th.
By September 23rd, everyone was yearning for the seeds of healing, and the first step was some sort of return to normalcy.
With the NFL's Week 2 rescheduled to year's end, the Steelers' opener against the Browns was displaced, and the Bengals had the honors of christening state-of-the-art Heinz Field. Cincy's Bengals "bungled," and the Steelers won their home opener, 16-7.
In his second of two career years (the other was 1997), Kordell Stewart rekindled the electrifying style of play he had entertained millions of fans with years earlier. By limiting his bad decisions, particularly turnovers, and using his arms and legs to rank among the finest passers in the 2001 NFL season, Kordell and the Steelers exploded back onto the NFL landscape. They reentered the championship discussion.
The Steelers finished 13-3, and they were the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVI.
With Stewart, Jerome Bettis, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward, the offense helped engineer a rebirth of sorts, both for "Slash" and the Steelers. Yet, it was the defense that truly anchored Pittsburgh back to the status of an elite NFL team.
The "Big, Nasty D" featured leading tackler Earl Holmes, Kendrell Bell, Chad Scott, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and all-star run-stuffer Aaron Smith.
Chad Scott led the unit with five interceptions, resulting in a whopping 204 return yards and two touchdowns.
However, the true surprise of the season was rookie Kendrell Bell, who electrified Steelers fans with nine of the team's 55 sacks. Jason Gildon led the onslaught on opposing passers with a dozen sacks.
The return to contention was also marked with the rise of a new NFL rivalry.
In 2001, the defending champion Baltimore Ravens and proud Pittsburgh Steelers— whose envy couldn't be denied, having come so close to the prize only to fall short—engaged in three savage contests.
Tensions escalated, as the Ravens' championship mettle and the Steelers' statistical dominance of the two regular-season games gave both teams a swagger they refused to yield.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers' first-ever home loss at Heinz Field saw four missed field goals from the foot of Kris Brown, a painful memory from a dominating Pittsburgh effort. Undeservedly, the Black and Gold fell, 13-10.
Revenge would be sweet.
A late-season game in Baltimore saw the Steelers clinch the AFC Central Division Championship. Kordell Stewart's picture-perfect pass to a streaking Bobby Shaw covered 90 yards, giving the Men of Steel a late lead, 19-7, and truly drawing the ire of the proud defending champs.
The two teams, having split the season series, would next meet in the playoffs. A war of words was waged.
Eventually, as all word wars that are waged do, the battle took to the field and real football was played. Or should I say, real football was delivered by the Steelers and to the Ravens.
On his first throw (and the Ravens' first offensive play), Elvis Grbac (who was chosen to replace champion Trent Dilfer at quarterback in the offseason by Brian Billick) was hit, threw a duck and was intercepted. A tone was set.
The Steelers jumped out to a 20-0 lead. Turnovers accumulated on the purple side of the ball and the black and gold continued to capitalize. The Ravens eventually fought back, and a Jermaine Lewis punt return for a touchdown (special teams was the Steelers' bane in the early decade) cut the score to 20-10. That is when Plaxico "Plaxiglass" (according to Shannon Sharpe) Burress proved his "bend but not break" credentials, hauling in a late touchdown to draw the game to its final score of 27-10.
In the divisional playoffs, the Steelers looked like champions.
In the AFC Championship Game, they looked like the exact same team that surrendered the Lamar Hunt Trophy to John Elway's Broncos in January 1998.
This time, they were heavily favored to defeat the upstart Tom Brady and the "Cinderella" Patriots. However, ill-timed turnovers and special teams gaffes ended a magnificent season, and the Steelers fell to the Boston bunch, 24-17.
It was an incredibly disappointing ending to a wildly successful 2001 season.
Sadly, instead of "One for the Thumb," the rise of Tom Brady was right around the corner.