By Jason Keidel
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In case you’re not familiar with this slice of cyberspace, yours truly is a frothing Steelers fan, whose blood type is black and gold, while weaned on “Mean” Joe Greene.
My father, who raised me in this manner, was overly and overtly cynical entering Sunday’s AFC championship game between the Steelers and Patriots. Pittsburgh was the hottest team in the sport, winning nine straight games, with the most potent offensive triumvirate in the league.
And despite that the defense didn’t exactly remind folks of Greene and the old Steel Curtain, it had gotten exponentially better, and even led the NFL in sacks over that stretch. So I asked my old man why. He said, flatly, “They have the better quarterback and the better coach.”
Unlike many chats over the last four decades, which often included strategy, tactic, details and underlying lessons, his explanation felt facile. But maybe it’s that simple. Or maybe we can draw from boxing.
Some sports clichés have crossover appeal, if not application. One particular cliché tells us that styles make fights.
Think of Joe Frazier, who gave Muhammad Ali fits. Yet Ali whipped George Foreman, while Foreman owned Frazier. Twice.
Most pundits thought the Kansas City Chiefs were the one team that squared up well against the New England Patriots. Yet the Chiefs didn’t make it because they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, twice. So, of course, the Steelers have no answer for the Patriots.
Ben Roethlisberger is 3-0 in AFC title games — when he’s not playing Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Over his entire career, Big Ben is just 3-7 against New England.
There are the obvious things, like the road team often faring poorly in conference championship games. And the Steelers did little to help themselves Sunday. Antonio Brown — who, not coincidentally, adores Odell Beckham Jr. — channeled his inner Beckham with that infamous Facebook Live show. Then at least 15 Steelers got saddled with the flu that seems to have devoured most of the nation. Then, upon arriving at the team hotel near Gillette Stadium, some slick Patriots fan pulled the fire alarm, causing the building to be evacuated, while the Steelers team bus toiled outside for several hours well after midnight.
Then there was the game, which was a perfect microcosm of why the Steelers lose these games and why the Patriots win them. The Patriots are deceptively great. They don’t overwhelm you with running, passing or special teams. They don’t bulldoze you with force or power or size. They aren’t special at any one thing. They’re just really good at everything. The Steelers miss an extra point. The Steelers couldn’t nudge the ball in from the half-yard line. The Steelers fumble on a routine catch across the middle. Something like that death by a thousand cuts.
No one will compare the Patriots to the best teams in NFL history, or even their own history. They are doing all this sans their only bona fide Hall of Fame talent other than Brady. Imagine how good they would be with Rob Gronkowski hulking from the tight end spot. Imagine Brady with another weapon beyond the largely unknown Chris Hogan, who morphed into Jerry Rice against Pittsburgh.
Playing the Patriots is like a gridiron version of whack-a-mole. Stop Dion Lewis, say hello to LeGarrette Blount. Plug the running game, Julian Edelman (eight receptions, 118 yards and a touchdown Sunday) snakes through the secondary. And then there’s Hogan, who was a lacrosse player and a member of the Buffalo Bills before Belichick remolded him into a legitimate downfield threat. He torched the Steelers with nine catches for 180 yards and two TDs.
The Steelers play the same defense every time against New England, which has yielded disastrous results. Brady now has 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions against Pittsburgh since Mike Tomlin took over in 2007. Meanwhile, New England is renowned for showing you a different look every game, if not every quarter, if not every play.
Donovan McNabb, who knows something about conference title games as well as playing the Patriots in a Super Bowl, told a quick-but-spot-on story Monday morning. When McNabb’s Eagles prepared for the Pats in Super Bowl XXXIX, they knew New England would play some variation of the 3-4 defense, their base package. Then, when McNabb lined up for Philadelphia’s first drive, he saw the Patriots were suddenly in a 4-3, which they hadn’t run once all year.
That’s why the Patriots have their mail forwarded to the AFC title game, while the Steelers just visit.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel