PITTSBURGH - In September 2007, a few days before the Pittsburgh Steelers faced Ken Whisenhunt's Arizona Cardinals, Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel took a stab at what the game meant to Whisenhunt.
"Arizona is going to come at us with everything they have," said Keisel. "Whis wants to win this game, I think, more than getting to the Super Bowl and winning it."
Nobody beat the Whis that day - he got his first home win as an NFL head coach, 21-14. Adding a dash of spice, it was also the first head coaching loss for Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin was the upstart candidate for the Steelers job during the 2007 offseason that Whisenhunt, the Steelers offensive coordinator, and Russ Grimm - the ex-Steelers offensive line coach that headed to Arizona with Whisenhunt - got boxed out of.
If - as Keisel said - Whisenhunt wanted to win that September matchup with Arizona more than he wanted to win a Super Bowl, well, how much will he want to win this Super Bowl with Arizona?
"Did you expect anything different?" Whisenhunt deadpanned Monday. "I mean, when we actually won the (NFC Championship), how could it have not been the Steelers (winning the AFC)? That was what I expected. It's just a shame there won't be many story lines this week because of these two matchups."
Las Vegas has the Steelers favored by about a touchdown heading into this game, but Whisenhunt is the great leveler. As the Steelers offensive coordinator, he got deep insight into his players' strengths as well as their weaknesses. And how well he and his staff can put the Steelers in positions of discomfort is the X-factor.
"It can't hurt us that we know a little bit about them," Whisenhunt said Monday. "Hopefully it will only help us. That team has changed from the two years since we were there, and they had a very difficult schedule and played a lot of good football this year. So we know it's going to be a challenge. I think knowing the personnel for the most part is a little bit easier because you don't have to spend as much time doing that, but we have two weeks to prepare so it's not like we're in a time crunch."
In their matchup last year, the Cardinals harassed Ben Roethlisberger into going 17 for 32, picking him off twice and sacking him four times while he threw for 244 yards and two scores. Running back Willie Parker was limited to just 37 yards on 19 carries, and Arizona scored a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to win.
"It's obviously a special win for me to beat the Steelers," Whisenhunt admitted after the game.
In 2006, Whisenhunt's final year in Pittsburgh, the Steelers went 8-8 while Roethlisberger struggled coming back from his traumatic offseason motorcycle accident, throwing a league-leading 23 picks.
After getting the Cardinals job, Whisenhunt said of Roethlisberger, "Being in the pocket and having to face the rush, there was some trauma that was with him that maybe we all underestimated from that standpoint. It took him a little bit longer to get over than what we had thought. When we started the season, or even in training camp, we didn't think it was going to have an effect. But certainly when you go back and look back over it again, I'm convinced that it did."
Roethlisberger has since returned to form. And then some. He's playing the best football of his career right now, and his confounding ability to improvise make him a difficult quarterback to game plan for. Whisenhunt admitted that Monday.
"I don't know if there is an advantage (to knowing Roethlisberger's game)," he said. "He's playing pretty good football right now. He does a lot of things very well, and it's going to be a tough issue facing him. He's grown up as most players do when they have played a lot. He's had a lot of success, and he will be a very difficult player to face."
But Whisenhunt has first-hand knowledge of the things Roethlisberger doesn't love. Having to stand in the pocket and make throw after conservative throw against a zone defense is one of them. And the Cardinals have been tremendously opportunistic on thrown balls in these playoffs (they're an absurd plus-9 in turnover differential in just three postseason games). That could be a factor.
And it will be more of one than the inevitable Tomlin-Whisenhunt/Grimm rivalry stories will be.
The rivalry is not between the coaches, per se. If anything, it's between the Steelers' braintrust and their former coaches. The organization bypassed their coaches in favor of Tomlin. It's worth pointing out that they weren't wrong about Tomlin and that Whisenhunt took the Cardinals job before the Steelers made their decision. Grimm was the one that was the "finalist" along with Tomlin, not Whisenhunt (although he may have seen the writing on the wall).
"There is obviously a strong place in my heart for a lot of the people, coaches, players and obviously Mr. Rooney with that organization," Whisenhunt reiterated. "A big part of the reason why I am here is because of my opportunity to work with that team. I am excited that we are in the Super Bowl, first and foremost. If I had to be happy that another team made it, obviously it would have been the Steelers because of knowing so many people in the organization. There is going to be a lot of excitement for this game. There will be a lot of our friends who will be down there. It will make for a good two weeks.
"Why would I have any hard feelings?" he asked. "I don't see why you wouldn't want an NFL job. I had a great opportunity here. There were a lot of things that I thought were in place that would help us have an opportunity to win. I think we have shown that, and I am excited about that. Once I had accepted the offer here, I didn't have any other thoughts about the Steelers, except other than gratitude for what they had given me the opportunity to do."
Opportunity is knocking again, and the Steelers are on the other side of the door. Perfect symmetry.
- Tom E. Curran, NBCSports.com