Author’s Note: The bulk of this article originally was published July 8, 2016. But in honor of the Steelers advancing to the AFC Championship game against the Patriots, an updated ending has been added to preview Sunday’s big game.
Outside of the divisional rivals, the team that most often draws the ire of Pittsburgh Steelers' fans has to be the New England Patriots. The Patriots are always a good team, they have a rabid fan base, a head coach that often seems to purposely annoy media members, an attention-loving owner, and a quarterback that can be perceived as whining to the refs after every play. Not to mention the highly publicized cheating scandals they've been rightly or wrongly accused of.
You know what else, though, that really annoys Steeler fans about the Patriots most of all? They beat the Steelers routinely, and often in blowouts. In fact, the three years that the Steelers have gone to the Super Bowl in the Ben Roethlisberger era, they haven't had to play the Patriots in the playoffs. I'm not saying for sure the Steelers would have lost to the Pats, and I'm sure some people right now are heading to the comments to point out that in 2005 and 2010 the Steelers beat the team that beat the Patriots in the playoffs. Of course you could also point out in the 2005 and 2010 seasons the Patriots beat the Steelers in the regular season. So what is it that the Patriots do that the Steelers can never beat them?
Since quarterback is the most important position I went back and looked at all the games between the two teams that both Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger played in to try and find some answers.
Score: 34-20 Steelers
Recap: By this time Tom Brady had already won two Super Bowl rings and established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. After years of mediocre play from Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox, the Steelers hoped they had a star of their own in rookie Ben Roethlisberger. On Halloween night, the Steelers rode an efficient Roethlisberger (18-24 -2 TDs) along with almost 200 yards rushing between Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis to take down the previously undefeated Patriots. A vicious defense frustrated Brady with two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and four sacks.
Key Takeaways: The Steelers maximized their potential by capitalizing on an efficient and balanced offense that didn't turn the ball over. Also winning the turnover battle and getting pressure on Brady helped keep the star off balance.
Game: 1/23/2005 (AFC Championship)
Score: 41-27 Patriots
Recap: This was a beat down. One big difference between Brady and the rookie Roethlisberger? Brady had been here before and was confident in his ability. In the Steelers' first playoff game you could see the playoff pressure overwhelming Roethlisberger, and that continued against the Patriots. The Steelers had no answers for a motivated Patriots team that seemed to pounce on every Steelers' mistake. The Patriots capitalized on four Roethlisberger turnovers to easily move on to the Super Bowl against the Eagles where they would also triumph.
Key Takeaways: Don't give Tom Brady a short field, he'll make you pay. Don't fall behind against the Patriots so that you become one dimensional.
Score: 23-20 Patriots
Recap: Seeking revenge for their blowout the year before the Steelers nearly beat the defending champs again, instead losing on a field goal as time expired. The Steelers' defense kept Brady out of the end zone, but gave up over 370 yards passing. Again the defense was able to harass Brady into three sacks and an interception. Ben Roethlisberger struggled completing only 12 passes for 216 yards. However, he threw two touchdowns, including one to tie the game with 1:21 left in the game. Unfortunately, that ended up being too much time since Brady marched down the field to let Adam Vinatieri win the game, one the Steelers would like to have back.
Key Takeaways: I'm going to write "pressure Brady and capitalize on their mistakes" until you get sick of it.
Score: 34-13 Patriots
Recap: New coach Mike Tomlin's first introduction to this rivalry saw the Steelers matchup with a Patriots team that was 12-0 and chasing perfection to shut up all the critics over the Spygate scandal. This was also the game in which Anthony Smith, starting at safety instead of Ryan Clark, famously guaranteed victory. Joe Namath he was not. The Steelers hung with the Pats in the first half trailing 13-14 with only two minutes to go before the half. As they so often do, the Patriots got a momentum killing score before the half expired and then scored again early in the third. The Steelers could get no sacks on Brady who committed no turnovers and threw for almost 400 yards and three touchdowns. The Steelers' offense wasn't able to keep up and got shutout in the second half.
Key Takeaways: The Steelers actually ran effectively with Willie Parker but had to abandon the run as they fell behind in the game. Had the defense put up a fight against the Patriots' offense maybe the Steelers' balanced attack would have paid dividends. Then again, it's hard to get too mad at the Steelers for losing to arguably the best football team of all time.
Score: 39-26 Patriots
Recap: This was the first meeting between these two teams since Brady's comeback from his leg injury. In 2008 the Steelers blew out the Brady-less Patriots so bad some wondered if maybe Brady coming back wouldn't be the death sentence it normally is for the Steelers? Unfortunately, Brady was A) Still at the top of his game and B) back with a new weapon named Rob Gronkowski. Gronk scored on the Patriots' first possession of the game and was only just getting started. He would score again in the second and the rout was on. Brady would run for a touchdown with 20 seconds left in the half to put his team up 23-3. The Steelers would cut it to 23-10 but then an interception return for a touchdown and yet another Gronk touchdown sealed the game for the Patriots.
Key Takeaways: Again, the Steelers got no pressure or takeaways on Brady and he carved them up. The Steelers abandoned a somewhat productive running game due to falling behind and having to throw. Also, this Gronkowski guy is really good.
Score: 25-17 Steelers
Recap: Almost seven years to the day the last time they beat Tom Brady, the Steelers did it again. The Steelers ride three Shaun Suisham field goals and two Roethlisberger touchdown passes (including the first of Antonio Brown's career) to victory on offense. On defense the Steelers *gasp* pressure Brady and it works. They hold him to under 200 yards and get three sacks in a great effort from LaMarr Woodley before he hurts his leg. Roethlisberger takes advantage of an exceptionally porous Pats' defense and attempts fifty passes, completing 36 for 365 yards. While that isn't much balance, the Steelers do average nearly 5 yards a carry on the ground. Late in the game the Patriots have time for one last heave to the end zone but Brett Kiesel knocks the ball out of Brady's hands and Troy Polamalu makes a heads up play by illegally punching the ball out of the end zone for a game ending safety after the officials miss the punch.
Key Takeaways: PRESSURE BRADY! HAVE A BALANCED OR AT LEAST EFFICIENT OFFENSE! Also it doesn't hurt having a future Hall of Fame player make a very smart play in a key situation.
Score: 55-31 Patriots
Recap: This is one of the stranger games I've seen. The Steelers came in desperately seeking a win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, and found themselves down 24-10 at halftime thanks to allowing a Patriots' touchdown with under a minute to go until halftime...again. The Steelers then rode two Jericho Cotchery touchdowns back to tie a game they had trailed 17-3 at 24. Then the Steelers just couldn't get anything going. The Pats answered with a field goal and then a touchdown after the Steelers went three and out quickly on their second possession of the second half. The Patriots simply could not be stopped. Brady was efficient going 23-33 for 400 yards and four touchdowns, while Steven Ridley and LeGarrette Blount gashed the Steelers on the ground all day. The Steelers' defense actually got three sacks on Brady and forced a fumble. But the Patriots' defense bested them by getting five sacks, two interceptions, and a fumble from Roethlisberger. In a game of attrition, the Patriots outlasted the Steelers' onslaught.
Key Takeaways: Limit mistakes, don't give up points right before the half, and be consistent on defense to have a shot against the patriots.
Score: 28-21 Patriots
Recap: This is a true story. Sitting on a beach at the end of the summer a friend of mine that's a Patriots' fan asked me what I thought about the opening game of the 2015 season. I told him the Steelers' secondary was poor and that Gronk would get three touchdowns in the game. In the first game of the 2015 season I watched Brady dominate the Steelers' secondary while Gronkowski scored three touchdowns.
In truth this was going to be a hard game to win for the Steelers from the get go. It was the first game of the year so the team wasn't in rhythm yet. Besides the usual first night jitters it was the game the Patriots raised their championship banner, and Tom Brady was on the filed after it looked like he would have to serve his four game suspension for the deflated footballs. It was a hostile environment for the visiting team with the crowd so elated. But enough with excuses. After trading punts in the opening quarter Brady began to heat up, connecting with Gronkowski twice to take a 14-0 lead. The Steelers continued to shoot themselves in the foot as Josh Scobee missed two field goals in a preview of what was to come for him that year. Darrius Heyward-Bey appeared to have a late touchdown, but he lost track of where he was in the end zone and stepped out of bounds. In the second half a Mike Mitchell forced fumble bounced right to Gronk at the one-yard line setting up his third touchdown. DeAngelo Williams filling in for the suspended Le'Veon Bell, surprised just about everyone watching with a very productive night running, but, you guessed it, they had to abandon the run game to throw the ball as they fell behind due to their miscues. This is another game the Steelers would like a redo on. As the season wore on I found myself wanting another shot at the Patriots. I believe if you removed the opening night emotions and replayed this game in, say, week ten after the Steelers had found their rhythm and sorted out the kicking situation that it would have been much closer. I'm not guaranteeing a victory, but the Steelers had found a forumla by then that resulted in handing the Patriots one extra loss.
Key Takeaways: Don't fall behind against the Pats so you become one dimensional. Figure out how to stop Gronkowski. Don't make mistakes against a team good enough to capitalize on them.
The Steelers played the Patriots again on October 23, 2016, but Ben Roethlisberger was out with a knee injury. Many spectators, myself included, felt that the game would be a blowout, but ended up being surprised when it was a close game entering the fourth quarter. The Patriots were able to pound the Steelers on the ground with LeGarette Blount, and Gronk broke free for yet another touchdown. However, there were some encouraging signs for the Steelers this game—they were able to force turnovers but they just weren’t able to capitalize. Le’Veon Bell had an extremely productive day on the ground, gaining 149 yards from scrimmage, even though the Patriots’ defense could sell out to stop him without Roethlisberger on the field. Since October, the Steelers’ defense has been playing much better, and the team has been comfortable feeding Bell the ball as much as possible. In fact, the Steelers haven't played the Patriots with a healthy Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown in a game since 2013 due to injuries and suspensions. It’s been a long time coming, but the Steelers have to feel confident that those three players can make a difference this time.
So what exactly do the Steelers need to do to defeat the Patriots in their first playoff rematch since 2005? A whole bunch of cliche things that are easier said than done. They need to get consistent pressure on Brady. They need to stop the run so the Patriots become one dimensional. While Rob Gronkowski will miss the game due to injury, Dion Lewis is a player that will have to be accounted for by the Steelers’ defense. If the Patriots turn the ball over, the Steelers need to put points on the board off of the turnover. Le’Veon Bell needs the ball in his hand early and often to take some of the pressure off of the Steelers’ other weapons. Lastly, the Steelers need to take care of the football, but they can’t get too conservative on offense either.
The Steelers will enter Sunday’s contest as underdogs, but this is a team has won nine consecutive games, so the odds-makers opinions shouldn’t matter to anyone in the locker room. The Steelers could exorcise a lot of demons from their past with a win on Sunday over their most bitter rival with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.