It wasn’t long ago that tonight’s Thursday Night Football billing would’ve been among the biggest games of the season. The two winningest franchises in NFL history (we count rings ‘round these here parts, bubba), one helmed by the greatest improvisational quarterback in NFL history, the other helmed by the greatest all-around quarterback in NFL history, both replete with offensive and defensive star power, squaring up in an evergreen preview of the AFC Championship Game. For years, Steelers-Patriots was the NFL’s foremost non-divisional rivalry. Can’t-miss television.
And now look at them. Disgraces, both. Loathsome husks of a bygone era. Living graves containing the rotting corpses of optimism and promise. The specters that lurk beneath evoke vivid memories of wide-open championship windows and numerous exhilarating games—instant classics!—and they speak in ghastly platitudes. DeflaaaaaateGaaaate. Jesse Jaaaaaaames caught the baaall. Antoniooooo Broooooown could have been the gooooooat. Menacingly, they drag chains across the ethereal realm, only to use them to mark Roosevelt Nix down short of the sticks.
The Steelers, now helmed by Mitchell Trubisky (who was drafted eight picks before Patrick Mahomes; never forget this), will do battle against the Patriots, now helmed by Bailey Zappe (a presumed career backup foisted into a starting role to relief of Mac Jones, who looks more likely to be slinging used cars next season than slinging passes in the NFL). Sportsbooks have set the over/under for this game at 30, which is both the lowest total I personally have ever seen (Pro Football Talk reports this is the lowest total since 1993) and two points higher than the aggregate scoring average for each team. To reiterate: one or both of these teams will need to outperform their per-game scoring average for the season just to barely hit the over on the lowest total since I was filling diapers with the exact same product Amazon intends to serve this evening.
Tonight’s game will not be as much of a “defensive struggle” as it’ll be two starting quarterbacks struggling to grasp the concept of object permanence. There is a real-world possibility that Zappe gets replaced by Jones, or (and?) that Trubisky gets replaced by Mason Rudolph (who, amazingly, could potentially represent an upgrade at the quarterback position). Third in the Steelers’ woeful line of succession is Trace McSorley, who you might remember from his time at Penn State. McSorley was still on the practice squad as of this writing but given the inherent weirdness that tends to befall Thursday Night Football, there is a non-zero chance he suits up.
And I hope he does. Tonight’s game represents the Prime Day of NFL matchups. It is the discounted waffle maker that you don’t need but Amazon nevertheless insists you may be interested in it based on your viewing history. It is the NFL’s hubris and corporate greed epitomized in 4K, so I hope the viewing audience gets a good long look at a quarterback who was once favorably compared to Johnny Manziel—I cannot imagine a more damning indictment—or whatever other flotsam gets a hat.
Not that it’ll offend the audience’s sensibilities in the slightest. The only people with rooting interests in this game are Steelers fans, Patriots fans, masochists, and degenerate gamblers, all of whom a) share considerable overlap and b) require further psychoanalysis to determine the root cause of what ails them, and everyone else tuning in will be doing so to bear witness to a three-hour-long meme. The Steelers just got dog-walked by the 3-10 Cardinals, at home. Half the players on the team, including the starting quarterback, are injured, and it’s a short week. Do you think the thought of a game going to overtime and ending 0-0 bothers me in the slightest? I watched the Browns game a few weeks ago, man! I am numb to the pain. I am rooting for two things: a Steelers win, and a Scoreagami (hopefully a 2-0 Steelers win on a walk-off safety, or a 6-4 Steelers win—all points coming as the result of safeties).
There is a weird duality to all this in that the halcyon days of the Steelers-Patriots “rivalry” usually ended with Ben Roethlisberger et al. looking bereft on the sidelines, whereas the Steelers are favored by nearly a touchdown in tomorrow’s matchup. Should the Steelers win, they’ll be 8-5 and in a good position to make a run at the playoffs. The Patriots, meanwhile, look checked out and ready for the off-season’s tender embrace. Beating this moribund iteration of the Patriots won’t hit quite the same as defeating Tom Brady in his prime, but if spending a Thursday evening gorging on a buffet of football atrocities yields another win, I’ll take some Alka-Seltzer and choke it down. If nothing else, it’ll buy me a free Sunday.