The 2001 AFC Championship Game hurt. The 2004 AFC title game hurt even more.
The worst part of losing those games besides the fact that it cost Pittsburgh two chances at adding more Lombardi Trophies to their collection? That the Steelers revenge in the playoffs never happened.
Since that '01 heart-breaker, the 24-17 loss to the heavy underdog Patriots, the Steelers and Patriots have met in the playoffs just once, the 2004 title game I won't spend any time lamenting about. During that span, Pittsburgh and New England have appeared in nine out of the last 14 Super Bowls, winning six of them and along the day partook in some of the greatest games in the early portion of the 21st century. Ben Roethlisberger's "Immaculate Tackle" in 2005 vs. the Colts. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning in the 2006 AFC title game thriller. Brady's Pats being denied an undefeated season by the heavy underdog Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The Steelers two heavyweight playoff bouts with the Ravens in 2008 and '10. Big Ben's last-minute touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes to clinch the Steelers unprecedented sixth Super Bowl title, only to be upstaged in NFL Network's Greatest Game bracket by Brady's come-from-behind victory in Super Bowl XLIX.
None of those great games included a Steelers vs. Patriots matchup. The teams have faced each other just nine times since 2001, with New England coming away the victor six times. The Steelers have had their bright moments in this matchup- snapping the Pats' 21-game winning streak in '04 along with beating down the Brady-less Pats in Foxboro in '08 among them-but more often than not, the sight of Brady's and Bill Belichick's Patriot teams across the line of scrimmage from the Steelers has often not been a pretty sight for Pittsburgh fans.
At this point in this story, you're probably wondering why I'm deciding to somber your day by focusing on the Steelers futility in this "rivalry", and what I'm getting at with this piece, which is how great it would be if the Steelers finally won a "big one" against the Brady-Belichick Patriots. That was the one thing missing in our Super Bowl victories in 2005 and '08, and while beating the heavily-favored Colts and Broncos along with the playoff wins over the Ravens were sweet, a post season victory over the team that gave Steelers fans so much heartache earlier in the 2000s would have been the cherry on top of the Super Bowl sundaes.
I honestly thought 2014 could have been the year that the Steelers upended the Pats in the playoffs, until the injury to Le'Veon Bell derailed Pittsburgh's opportunity. As we all know, the Patriots ran the table and won their fourth Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era, while the Steelers were sent home early. To add insult to injury, LeGarrette Blount, who started the season Pittsburgh before his unceremonious exit after 10 games, ended the season holding aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy in New England.
While it wouldn't be a playoff game, the specter of playing the Patriots in New England to start the season and spoiling their Super Bowl banner unveiling would be sweet. It could also be a step towards a bigger victory later on in the season against a team and quarterback that could help cement Roethlisberger's case as a Hall-of-Fame quarterback and Tomlin's as an elite NFL coach. It would also help ease the pain of those losses in 2001 and '04, while maybe, finally, ending the Patriots' 15-year-run as the elite team in the league.