Here we are again. For the third time, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play the New England Patriots for the right to go to the Super Bowl. This time, the New England Patriots have the number one seed and home field advantage. A scenario the Steelers were in the other two times they met with the AFC crown on the line.
Those other two times, New England has beaten Pittsburgh. Each loss ended a sensational season by the Steelers that appeared to be destined to bring home another Lombardi trophy. 2001, the second seeded Pats defeated the 13-3 and number one seeded Steelers 24-17 in Heinz Field. That was the game Tom Brady was knocked out and Drew Bledsoe had to be dusted off from the bullpen to rescue the Pats. New England would go on to win their first of four Super Bowls in the 2000’s.
2004, Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season. The Steelers were 15-1 and the number one seed again. In the regular season, Pittsburgh defeated New England 34-20 and ended their record 21-game winning streak. Steelers Nation thought they finally had Brady and Bill Belichick’s number. But in the playoffs, the second seed Pats thumped them 41-27. Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, one returned for a touchdown by safety Rodney Harrison.
It feels like they have their number. Four of the last five times these two teams have played, Pittsburgh has lost. It’s payback time.
These aren’t the same Steelers the Patriots defeated in week seven 27-16. Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play that game due to injury. James Harrison wasn’t starting and wasn’t heavily used in the linebacker rotation. Bud Dupree was still on the injury list. Those rookies in the secondary, Sean Davis and Artie Burns were still inexperienced. And Brady had Rob Gronkowski in the lineup. Number 87 won’t be there Sunday.
What does that mean? As I sit here on Monday afternoon and write this, not much. But the Steelers defense that allowed 362 total yards, 127 rushing and two touchdowns to LeGarrette Blount, and 93 receiving yards and a touchdown to “Gronk” on that late October afternoon, is very much improved.
In this 9-game winning streak dating back to week 11, the defense allows 87.6 rushing yards per game and 230.6 passing yards per game. They’re also plus 7 in turnover margin. The D is the only thing anyone worries about when it comes to Pittsburgh, and in the divisional round against Kansas City, they showed they can be counted on to do their part and even win a game.
Offensively everyone knows Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have the weapons to put up points with Brady and crew. After the divisional matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs where they only mustered 5 field goals, and went 0-4 in the red zone, Pittsburgh has several questions to answer. Can Big Ben minimize his turnovers? Will he get rid of the ball instead of trying to extend plays, risking taking sacks that put the offense behind the chains? Will they learn from the stalled drives against the Chiefs and give the ball to Le’Veon Bell and let him wear out the defense while eating time off the clock, keeping Brady on the sidelines?
The Steelers will likely need to score the 27 points per game they’ve been averaging in their win streak to pull off the upset. The defense will need to come up with that one turnover, or that key sack on third down to get the ball back for the Killer B’s.
This is it. Brady is nearing the end of his career. This will likely be Roethlisberger’s last, and best shot to get a major win over the four-time Super Bowl Champ and prove he belongs in the top of the elite QB conversation that so many times he’s mentioned in as an after thought.
This is also Mike Tomlin’s moment to get his critics, like Terry Bradshaw and a significant portion of Steeler fans, off his back. Legacies are at stake on both sides. I can’t see a more better way of alleviating the pain and frustrations this organization has caused Steelers Nation than celebrating an AFC Championship in their building, the same way they’ve ended so many promising seasons of ours. Third times gotta be the charm.
Kickoff is set for Sunday at 6:40 pm in Gillette Stadium.
- The last team to win a playoff game without scoring a touchdown was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, also in the divisional round, against the Baltimore Ravens. The next week, they played and beat the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, then went on to win Super Bowl XLI.
- New England is making their 6th consecutive AFC Championship game.
- The Steelers are making their 16th AFC Championship game appearance. That’s the most since the 1970 NFL-AFL Merger.