Steelers-Patriots has Super Bowl berth and historic bragging rights on the line

Pittsburgh does not like New England. For good reason.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are prohibitive favorites to win the Super Bowl this year, but in order to do that, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the most hated team in the NFL (let’s be honest, maybe the most hated team in American sports) will have to take out the Steelers first.

Here we go again.

The Patriots are +130 to win the Super Bowl (essentially, you bet $100 to win $130), per Vegas odds, while the Falcons — the home team in the NFC title game on Sunday — are +275. The Steelers and Packers are both +450 to win the Super Bowl, clear underdogs to even get to Houston, let alone win the title should either win their conference championship.

And yet, the Steelers have the chance they hoped to get all year.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Brady suspended for the first four games after the two-year saga of DeflateGate finally unfolded, the Patriots were still odds-on favorites to get back to the Super Bowl this season. And yet, the one team many oddsmakers pegged to be the biggest challenge to New England was the team they’re hosting this weekend: Pittsburgh.

Both teams opened at 8-1 to win Super Bowl LI last February, tied with Seattle for the best odds in the NFL. The Packers, for what it’s worth, opened at 10-1, while the Falcons started at 40-1.

When the regular season began, the Patriots had moved to 6-1 odds, while Pittsburgh had dipped to 10-1, per the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. For a season that could had been tumultuous, Belichick’s team has seemed as even-keeled as ever. The Patriots started the year 3-1 without Brady, then won 11 of the 12 games in which he played, earning the first round bye and the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.

The Steelers, meanwhile, started the season a strong 2-1 without Le’Veon Bell, extending their early record to 4-1 before things really started to go sideways. We’ve been through this all season: the defense fell apart against Miami in Week 6 and, so did Ben Roethlisberger, missing the much-anticipated tilt with the Patriots in Week 7.

Brady and the Pats beat up on the Ben-less Steelers 27-17 in Week 7, holding Bell to just 81 yards rushing (though 149 yards from scrimmage) as Brady threw two touchdowns on 19-for-26 passing and LaGarrette Blount rumbled for 127 yards and two scores.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
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There’s an overused cliché in sports when teams face each other in the regular season then again in the postseason that ‘these aren’t the same teams as they were back in Week 7,’ but in this case, that’s probably about as true as it can possibly be.

The Steelers without Roethlisberger are a shell of what they are with him. Even Bad Ben — even on-the-road-this-season Bad Ben — is better than no Ben at all, because he can keep the defense honest in ways Landry Jones just cannot do.

Moreover, the Patriots were led by Rob Gronkowski’s 93 yards receiving and one score in Week 7, and Gronk hasn’t played since Thanksgiving weekend, sidelined with a broken back.

Cliché or not, these are both very different offenses than last time the teams met.

The defenses are different, too, in that both are better than they were in the first half of the season. Since giving up 31 points to Seattle, the Patriots have only allowed more than 17 points once, averaging 12.9 points allowed per game since Week 11. And yet, the Patriots faced San Francisco, the Jets twice, the Rams, the Ravens, the Broncos, the Dolphins with Matt Moore and the Texans to end the season. Not one of those offenses are anything close to what the Steelers can throw at New England this week.

Gronk or not, the Patriots have the third-ranked scoring offense in football. Bad teams down the stretch or not, they have the best scoring defense in the game too, but the Steelers have the 11th-rated scoring offense and the 10th-best scoring defense, and despite not scoring a touchdowns against Kansas City, ride into the AFC title game having scored 24 or more points every week (until this past week) since Week 10.

Steelers-Patriots rivalry

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

These teams do not like each other. Just listen to Mike Tomlin’s postgame speech in the locker room if you don’t believe that.

And it stands to reason why. From 1996 to 2004, the Steelers and Patriots faced each other four times in the playoffs, with the Pats winning three, including both the 2001 and 2004 AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh.

Though it’s been more than a decade since they’ve faced off in the playoffs, the Pats and Steelers are constantly scheduled against each other in the regular season, and often in primetime or the late-afternoon exclusive Sunday window. It’s a big game every time they play, but since 2010, the Steelers have only won once in five games, including three at home. Since their last playoff game, the franchises have been scheduled in the regular season eight times, and Pittsburgh has won just twice.

The Steelers and Patriots haven’t faced each other in the playoffs since Jan. 23, 2005, in the 2004 AFC title game, but since that season, Pittsburgh has been to the Super Bowl three times, winning two, while New England has been four times, also winning two. Over the last 14 seasons, including this year, the AFC representative has been either the Patriots (5), Steelers (3) or a team led by Peyton Manning (Denver 2, Indianapolis 2) all but once, with Joe Flacco and the Ravens breaking that streak. That’s how teams become rivals without even playing: the race for success.

The Steelers, Cowboys, Broncos and Patriots are all tied with a record eight Super Bowl appearances, meaning the winner of the AFC title game this year will hold that record on their own.

There’s a lot on the line between these two teams. A lot.

Ben vs. Tom

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Roethlisberger has played against the Patriots eight times in his career, winning just three. His numbers have been decent against the Pats, completing 61.6 percent of his passes while tossing 17 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. He averages 285.1 yards per game against New England in his career as well, and while his QB rating of 95.4 is middle of the pack when compared to all opponents, by no means is it bad.

Ben has faced the Pats just once in his career in the playoffs, his first season in the league, when he threw two touchdowns and three interceptions en route to a 41-27 loss.

Brady is 7-2 in nine games against the Steelers in his career. He has a 69.6 completion percentage and has thrown 24 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions. Yikes.

His QB rating against the Steelers is 114.2, the best against any team in football other than Atlanta, his potential opponent in the Super Bowl.

Double yikes.

Brady, like Roethlisberger, faced this week’s opponent in his first playoff season, beating the Steelers in the AFC title game on Jan. 27, 2001 with admittedly modest numbers, sharing time with Drew Bledsoe that game before stewarding the Patriots to the Super Bowl. His second playoff meeting with the Steelers was the game in January, 2005, where Brady did more to help the Patriots not lose than win. He let Ben do the losing that day.

History on the line

The AFC champion has won the Super Bowl each of the last two seasons, three of the last four years and 10 of the last 16 years. The Steelers have the most Super Bowl wins with six, but one more would not only give the Patriots a record nine appearances, but give them five Super Bowl victories in seven appearances in the last 16 years. The Steelers may have the record for appearances and wins, but they’ve been to the Super Bowl just three times in that span, looking for a fourth. There is a lot on the line this Sunday.