A year ago, most of the country had never heard of Mike Tomlin. He was the Vikings' first-year defensive coordinator, someone whose name was easily confused with the Boston Red Sox reliever. In quick order, he elevated the Minnesota's defense from No. 21 in 2005 to No. 8 in 2006, the kind of improvement that turned heads and opened eyes.
On Sunday at Gillette Stadium, Tomlin will introduce himself to a new audience when he brings the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) to New England (12-0) and tries to take down a Patriots team that hasn't lost a game since January.
"We're approaching this week like we approach any other week," Tomlin, the Steelers first-year coach, said Wednesday during a conference call. "We have no control over who we play, the schemes they prepare, and things of that nature. We focus on what it is that we do and how we prepare and, ultimately, how we perform."
While Tomlin is playing down the hype of the matchup -- at least publicly -- a Steelers victory on Sunday would lift his rookie season from excellent to other-worldly. It might even elevate him to the front of the pack in the voting for coach of the year.
At the very least, the 35-year-old Tomlin has already earned a place in that conversation. Though he took over a talented team, Tomlin's transition didn't have the malaise and lethargy that visited the San Diego Chargers and NorvTurner early this season.
Coming from a 4-3 defensive background, Tomlin kept DickLeBeau's 3-4 system intact, blending his own beliefs with the style that has marked Steelers defenses for decades. If anything, the bedrock of the Steelers is the same under Tomlin, who preaches accountability, toughness and physicality.
"It's not only the Steelers' story -- that's the story of this game, the game of football," Tomlin said. "I think that's just the way this game was meant to be played. Most people that are good play the game that way."
Every week, Tomlin compiles a report that tells his players what is lacking and what needs improvement. Though he is not as confrontational as his predecessor, Bill Cowher, Tomlin has his own way of conveying a message, says running back Willie Parker.
"He doesn't sugarcoat anything that isn't up to his caliber or his standard," Parker said during a conference call. "He'll let you know."
While Sunday's game represents Tomlin's first foray against Bill Belichick, the Steelers and Patriots have a recent history almost as rich as Patriots-Colts. In the 2001 and 2004 seasons, New England advanced to the Super Bowl after defeating Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game. During the '04 season, the Steelers ended New England's 21-game winning streak, a victory memorable for linebacker Joey Porter pounding Tom Brady and forcing him into mistakes.
Porter is gone, but the Steelers have restocked with James Harrison, another pass-rushing, outside linebacker who chases quarterbacks from the blind side.
The Patriots, for their part, have looked tired the last couple of weeks, as if the burden of carrying a perfect record into December is catching up with them. Defensively, the tackling hasn't been as crisp and the pass rush seems a step slow. Even the offense has shown a few bugs, with receivers dropping passes and Brady facing more heat in the pocket than he has all year.
While Belichick would never admit weakness, he gave the players a rare day off from practice Wednesday following three consecutive prime-time games against the Bills, Eagles and Ravens. (Asked if the rest was the result of the night games, Belichick said the Patriots' coaching staff wanted to use the time to sharpen the game plan for Pittsburgh before presenting it to the players.)
Blowout wins have been the story of the Patriots' season, but so have the nail-biting, emotional victories: at Dallas on Oct. 14, at Indianapolis on Nov. 4, vs. Philadelphia on Nov. 25, at Baltimore last Monday.
Now, the Patriots face a Steelers team that has listened all season to people telling them they aren't in New England's class. That still could be the case, but you get the feeling the Steelers are glad they have three hours Sunday to figure it out.
"Their quest to go undefeated is not our story -- that's their story," Tomlin said. "Our story is that we play them this week and we want to beat them because they're on our schedule. We're going to play football this weekend."