Stakes are high for Steelers, Patriots


Associated Press

PITTSBURGH

The soul searching began the moment the Pittsburgh Steelers walked off the field last January at snowy Foxborough following painful three hours watching Tom Brady and the New England Patriots toy with them in a one-sided 36-17 victory in the AFC title game that didn’t even feel that close.

While the Patriots moved on to the Super Bowl and ultimately another championship parade through Boston, the Steelers lurched into an offseason wondering what it was going to take to end nearly two decades of torment at the hands Brady, Bill Belichick and New England’s seemingly endless string of role players turned difference makers.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger openly pondered retirement while simultaneously challenging the front office to upgrade the talent around him.

Coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler set about revamping a secondary that looked confused and overmatched as Brady picked it apart.

Roethlisberger opted to return for a 14th season. Pittsburgh grabbed wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round of the draft and welcomed Martavis Bryant back from a year-long suspension and signed two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden in August with an eye specifically on New England.

A chance to see how far the Steelers have come over the past 11 months — and how far they may still have to go — arrives today when the AFC North champions host the Patriots (10-3).

And while Roethlisberger tries to downplay the importance, Tomlin does not.

“It’s better to be in big games than ones that nobody is watching,” Tomlin said. “We better be appreciative of this spot and not resist it in any way, but embrace it because this is what we’ve been fighting for since March.”

Or, you know, way before that.

The Steelers (11-2) haven’t lost since Oct. 1 but have beaten Brady just twice in 17 years and only once since 2004, a 25-17 victory in 2011 that Roethlisberger jokingly admits he barely remembers. Maybe that’s because the sting of New England’s dominance remains so fresh.

The defending Super Bowl champions have won the past four meetings by an average of 15 points. And while New England’s early season defensive hiccups resurfaced in a 27-20 setback to Miami on Monday night that ended an eight-game winning streak, the Patriots rarely let the failures of one week carry over into the next. They are 40-11 following a loss since Brady took over in 2001.

If anything, getting pushed around by the Dolphins provided New England with a bit of a reality check. Another setback and their path through the postseason could include at least one game on the road.

Not that they’re ready to think that far ahead just yet.

That’s really not their thing.

“It’s just if we worry about the playoffs, we’ll go down there and we’ll get killed, honestly,” New England defensive back Devin McCourty said. “This is too good of a football team to worry about anything else that surrounds the game, the implications.”

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