Steelers-Patriots AFC title game has makings of a classic

SHARE Steelers-Patriots AFC title game has makings of a classic

Patriots coach Bill Belichick expressed his admiration this week for coach Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. | Don Wright/AP

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.  — There are few things Patriots coach Bill Belichick respects more than NFL history. And few teams elicit as much praise from Belichick as the Steelers.

Part of it is the reverence Belichick holds for the way Steelers founder Art Rooney and his family have operated a franchise that has remained among the league’s best, winning multiple Super Bowl titles more than 30 years apart. It is a model emulated when Robert Kraft bought the Patriots in 1994 and six years later hired Belichick, who has nurtured a “Patriots Way” that has helped bring four Lombardi trophies to New England.

Those histories will collide when two of the most successful programs of the 2000s meet Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

“They’ve been tough to deal with going all the way back to coach [Chuck] Noll in the ’70s,” Belichick said. “They were pretty consistently tough to deal with through that entire period of time, which has been all of my years in the league.”

The Patriots or Steelers have been a part of nine of the 17 Super Bowls since 2000, winning six championships between them.

“They have a lot of wins over there,” Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman said. “It’s nothing but respect for the Steelers. I went to school in Steelers Country over in Kent State. Half the school was in a Steelers jersey. I’ve known about that whole faithful for a while now.”

But for all their successes, the teams have met only four times in the playoffs. The Patriots have won three of those matchups, including the last two in the AFC title games in 2005 and 2002 at Heinz Field.  Both times New England went on the win the Super Bowl.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been a part of both of the Steelers’ recent championships, but the 34-year-old’s only playoff meeting with the Patriots was the 2005 loss when he was a rookie.

He has spoken often about his respect for the Patriots and Tom Brady, which included a request for a jersey from Brady before Pittsburgh’s loss to New England in October. This is the latest opportunity to play in “the lion’s den,” he said.

“They are the best in the world,” Roethlisberger said. “They are the gold standard, if you will. So you want to have that opportunity to go up to play the best.”

Brady is 6-2 in head-to-head matchups with Roethlisberger, but Roethlisberger didn’t play in the Patriots’ Week 7 win in Pittsburgh because he was recovering from surgery on his left knee.

Including the two playoff wins, Brady is 9-2 against the Steelers, including a 4-0 record at home. Roethlisberger is 3-6 against the Patriots.

History aside, Brady said he is expecting to get the best from Pittsburgh, which started the season 4-5 but has won its last nine.

“[Roethlisberger has] been a leader for that team for a long time, and they’ve won a lot of games with him behind the center,” Brady said. “It’s going to be a great game.”

What video?

Most of the early part of the week was consumed by the fallout from video of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin using an expletive to describe the Patriots during a postgame speech to his team after its divisional-round victory against the Chiefs. Unbeknownst to Tomlin, the speech was aired on a social-media live stream by wide receiver Antonio Brown.

But Patriots special-teams captain Matt Slater said it wouldn’t provide any extra motivation.

“We’re playing in the AFC Championship Game; if you can’t get motivated to play in this game, then you’re in the wrong sport,” he said.

Red means stop

The Steelers’ high-octane offense ran into some serious hiccups against Kansas City. Seven trips inside the Chiefs’ 30 — and four inside the 20 — resulted in no touchdowns, an interception and a playoff-record six field goals from Chris Boswell.

“We just didn’t execute on critical downs,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “We had opportunities to make plays in that game. A couple that probably would have been touchdowns, we didn’t make.”

Lucky Bud

Outside linebacker Bud Dupree might be the Steelers’ lucky charm. They haven’t lost since Dupree recovered from surgery to repair a sports hernia. The Steelers’ first-round pick in 2015, Dupree has five sacks in nine games while playing opposite veteran James Harrison.

Dupree typically lines up wide of the tight end, but he’s more than happy to try to go up the middle to get in Brady’s face, something the Texans did with limited success last week.

“You’ve got to do anything you can to try to get in his face,” Dupree said.

Key to the game

Strike quickly

The Patriots would love to jump to an early lead and eventually use the score to limit Le’Veon Bell’s touches in the run game. Look for QB Tom Brady and WR Julian Edelman — and possibly WR Chris Hogan, assuming he’s healthy — to try to connect downfield early in hopes of getting the crowd into the game and forcing the Steelers to play from behind, something they really haven’t had to do in their two playoff wins. While the Steelers envision Bell playing the closer’s role, the Patriots envision building a lead and having RB LeGarrette Blount do the same.

Matchup to watch

Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell vs. Patriots DB Devin McCourty

Bell has been playing at a high level, and his running has allowed the Steelers’ offense to chew up clock and attack in different ways. He is powerful enough to make it a long day for linebackers and safeties yet elusive and precise enough to turn simple plays into long gains. The challenge for McCourty is to offer run-stopping support, as he often does, without sacrificing his responsibilities in pass coverage. The Steelers used Bell’s success to free up TE Jesse James in the middle of the field last weekend, and the threat of WR Antonio Brown going deep always exists. The Steelers know their chances of winning are tied to the amount of success Bell can have in getting free and keeping the Patriots’ offense off the field. He has rushed for 337 yards in two playoff games this season.

By the numbers


All but 14 of the 53 players on the Patriots’ active roster had been through at least one postseason run with the team before this season, and the Patriots will be playing in their record sixth consecutive AFC Championship Game. It eventually will come down to slowing Bell and moving the chains, but experience gives the Patriots an edge at the outset.                      

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