The Pittsburgh Steelers watched a snow-splattered Troy Polamalu make a seemingly impossible, one-handed scoop interception on a mushy field against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers last season. That doesn't mean they believed it.
"Impossible," linebacker James Farrior said.
Not one quarter into the first NFL game of this season, Polamalu made a climb-the-ladder, one-handed interception of a pass by Titans quarterback Kerry Collins that the Steelers believe was comparable to last season's snowball grab.
"He's one of the all-time greatest safeties," safety Ryan Clark said Wednesday. "He's awesome. There's no other way to say it, he's the best safety in the NFL, point blank, period."
Which raises this question: Does Polamalu and all of his game-altering plays make the Steelers the best team in the league? With Polamalu in the lineup, the Steelers are 4-0 this season and 13-1 in their last 14 games, counting the post-season.
For all the attention the unbeaten Colts (8-0) and Saints (8-0) are getting, it almost seems as if the Super Bowl champion Steelers are being overlooked because of two last-minute losses that Polamalu missed with a left knee injury.
With Polamalu back, the Steelers (6-2) will carry a five-game winning streak into Sunday's pivotal AFC North game against the Bengals (6-2). Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Polamalu's one-time roommate at Southern Cal, already knows what he's getting into.
"Love watching him play," Palmer said. "Hate playing against him."
Statistics don't always quantify what Polamalu means to the Steelers - he was chosen for the Pro Bowl in 2007 without making a single interception all season - but they do illustrate how he might be having the best season of his seven-year career.
Because of his knee injury, Polamalu has played in only 3½ games, yet he is tied for fourth in the AFC with three interceptions and tied for seventh with 10 passes defended.
Polamalu, a Pro Bowl player each of the last five seasons, showed again Monday in Denver how a dynamic defensive player - and not just a quarterback, running back or wide receiver - can alter a game. And why his "43" jerseys are nearly as ubiquitous in Pittsburgh as Terry Bradshaw's "12" once was.
With the Steelers leading the Broncos (6-2) by 14-10 early in the fourth quarter, Polamalu jammed the line of scrimmage before bursting up the middle to drop Correll Buckhalter for no gain at the nine. One play later, Polamalu dropped into deep coverage to intercept a Kyle Orton pass intended for Brandon Marshall, and the Steelers scored three plays later.
"He didn't just take over the series, he took over the game," Farrior said. "He can do that at any point."
Against the Broncos, Polamalu once lined up outside the left tackle, only to streak across the field to tackle a wide receiver in the flat.
"That's what Troy does," Farrior said. "It looks like chaos, but he's definitely under control and has an idea what he wants to do. Sometimes things change during the play and he'll go do it, he'll take over. He's not afraid to take those chances and that's what separates him from other players."
Polamalu, told what his teammates were saying, almost seemed embarrassed. He also refuses to compare himself to the other top safeties, such as Baltimore's Ed Reed.
"I don't know," Polamalu said. "I'm just doing the things I'm coached to do. I'm just one of 11 guys out there."
To the Steelers, he's one of a kind. Quarterbacks rarely seem to target him, yet he has made an interception in all but one game this season.
"You've got guys who are irreplaceable, and then you've got Troy," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "There's no other Troy - not just on this team, but in the league. He's the difference."
What Farrior disputes is that Polamalu is a freelancer, someone who doesn't hesitate to abandon the defence that's been called to gamble.
"I think he watches more tape than anybody else," Farrior said. "Whenever he's out there taking chances, calculated risks, it might have been something he saw on tape a few weeks before. There might have been a game a couple of years before where he read something, saw something, so that he's not afraid to go and pull the trigger."
To Clark, Polamalu is more patient and less improvisational than he was a few seasons ago. He's also better.
"So much is written about him doing his own thing," Clark said. "I think he's improved on not doing that. ... Some guys in this league, you can make a mistake with them. You can't do that with Troy. He capitalizes on those and makes big plays. That's how he can take over a game."