PITTSBURGH — Finally, a trace of sanity has been restored.
Finally, a result has come in that might have been expected.
Finally, a Super Bowl contender has actually managed to look like a Super Bowl contender.
Quick, somebody call the commissioner and tell him it's okay to come out from under his desk. Thanks to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL makes sense again.
Good thing. There for a while, it seemed as if the NFL's division playoffs were dedicated to driving Roger Goodell — not to mention the rest of us — absolutely bonkers.
It was the wackiest weekend you could imagine, the NFL's version of a peasant revolt. The two No. 6 seeds won. The two No. 1 seeds lost. And most stunning of all, the eternal bad seed of the league, the Cardinals, managed to end up at home for the NFC Championship Game. It was such a strange weekend that, there for a moment, you might have sworn that the Browns still had a chance to win this thing.
Then, thankfully, came the Steelers.
And once again, there was order in the court.
That's the thing about normal. It's never in demand until it seems you have completely run out of it. The Cardinals won? And the Eagles? And the Ravens? What is this? The NFL playoffs, or a remake of The Birds? Who invited Alfred Hitchcock, anyway?
Perhaps that is why it was so refreshing Sunday evening to see the Steelers flex their considerable muscle against the Chargers. Pittsburgh's defense dominated, and the offensive line pushed people around, and Ben Roethlisberger rose from the stretcher to look as indestructible as ever.
How, you may ask, did the Steelers succeed where the other favorites failed?
"Because that was them," offensive tackle Max Starks explained carefully, "and this is us."
Regardless, the Steelers have just become the team to beat in the NFL playoffs. And given the treatment favorites have received lately, isn't it comforting that someone is willing to volunteer?
"We were talking about how crazy it was before the game," offensive tackle Willie Colon said. "We were saying, 'Don't let it be us. Don't let it be us.' We weren't ready for the season to end. I've been to New York. I've been to Miami. Where I haven't been is to Tampa."
If the Steelers play the way they did Sunday, they may get their chance. Granted, it will take a considerably longer workday to beat the Ravens than it did to beat the Chargers. San Diego flashed a little early and a little late, but in the moments in between, it was bullied on both lines of scrimmage.
For instance, running back Darren Sproles managed only 15 yards on 11 carries. For instance, the Chargers managed only one play in the third quarter, and it was an intercepted pass. How bad was it? By the fourth quarter, the lightning bolt on the team's helmets should have been replaced with an unplugged electric cord.
This is how a favorite is supposed to look, as if it has been refreshed and recharged from a bye week, as if it is focused and furious over a chance to play at home. It is supposed to look like, well, the Steelers looked.
And now, we wait to see if they can manage to look that way again.
It has been a strange run, hasn't it? You can only imagine what it must feel like for teams such as the Patriots, the Cowboys or, yes, even the Bucs to watch all the upsets and to wonder what might have happened if they had been able to squeak in.
Let's face it. Pittsburgh is Tampa Bay's last chance for a team with star quality in the Feb. 1 Super Bowl. Nothing against the other teams, because we all love the story about Cinderella, but what good is a ball if you only invite scullery maids? Doesn't at least one of the teams have to be an iconic franchise?
That's where the Steelers come in. On Sunday, they looked strong enough, swift enough, determined enough.
First, though, they have to get by the Ravens.
After all, this is the NFL. The craziness might not be complete.