PITTSBURGH -- If things would have gone a little differently this year, the Pittsburgh Steelers could be traveling to New England to face former teammate Emmanuel Sanders this week.
It appears that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin intervened after the Patriots signed Sanders to an offer sheet work $2.5 million for one year. The Steelers matched that deal, and Sanders remained with the team that selected him in the third round during the 2010 NFL Draft.
So, it's Sanders and the Steelers (2-5) moving on to face the New England Patriots (6-2) Sunday at 4:25 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
"It definitely came down to the wire," Sanders said. "It came down to the last couple hours. But Mike Tomlin called me and said the Steelers appreciated my work ethic and what I bring to the table and that they wanted me back, and they were going to match the offer."
Sanders talked about his contract situation a little bit during training camp, but the reality is the Steelers still must sign the wideout to a long-term contract after this season or they will lose him in free agency. As his agent intimated that he would do, it's difficult to imagine that Sanders would remain with the Steelers even if they offer him a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal. And there also is no guarantee that they'll offer him anything.
"What happened this (past) offseason happened," Sanders said. "I had an opportunity to go over there, but the Steelers matched that tender. I'm happy in the black and yellow. Right now, I'm playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and we're searching for win No. 3. That's all that's on my mind.
"It was pretty cool what took place this offseason of, not only the New England Patriots wanting me, but the other teams that were also involved with the deal. I work extremely hard and when Mike (Wallace) and Antonio (Brown) were here, I was the No. 3 (wideout). I felt like I was hidden a little bit, but it felt good to know that other teams recognized my talents."
Sanders isn't hidden this season. He clearly is the Steelers No. 2 receiver, behind Brown, with 31 receptions for 396 yards and two touchdowns. Brown is among the NFL leaders with 56 catches for 630 yards and two scores. Sanders also would be second on the Patriots in catches, as Julian Edelman leads with 48 for 462 and two scores. Aaron Dobson is next with 26 for 324 and two TDs.
"People kept saying Tom Brady doesn't have any receivers, but those two rookie receivers (Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins), are playing good ball," Sanders said. "They got (tight end Rob) Gronkowski back. And they got Julian Edelman. He has plenty of options."
Still, Sanders might have flourished with Brady and the Patriots. Just ask Pats coach Bill Belichick about the player's talents.
"I think Emmanuel's done a good job in the time that he's been in Pittsburgh, and he's doing it again this year," Belichick said. "He's an outstanding player. The kickoff return against the Ravens was a potentially game-changing play.
"It was. It set up the winning field-goal drive. The play he had last week on the two-point play. He's fast. He runs well with the ball in his hands. He gets open. He's a hard guy to cover, a hard guy to tackle and has value in the kicking game. I think he's got a lot of things going for him."
Sounds like Sanders is a guy who will be highly coveted when free agency rolls around in 2014.