FOXBOROUGH — Matt Light has a special place in his heart and some warm memories of Pittsburgh.
The Steelers may not share those fuzzy feelings.
The former lumberjack left tackle was a member of two Patriots squads that marched into Heinz Field and won a pair of AFC Championship games the old-fashioned way — with some smashmouth football.
“I love the physical side of the game,’’ Light said Tuesday. “I’m not saying dirty, but I liked to get after it. You know, ‘Hey, you punch me, I’ll punch you, and we’ll walk off the field feeling good about this.’ I like that physical nature and it didn’t get any better than playing those guys.’’
The Patriots went on the win Super Bowls after those wins in the 2001 and 2004 playoffs, the second of which particularly stands out to Light.
“Watching Corey Dillon streak down the right side for like a 25-yard romp into the end zone,’’ said Light. “One of my favorite memories of all time.’’
The Dillon touchdown came early in the second half, not long after the Steelers had cut their deficit to 24-10 and threatened to prevent a blowout, and effectively punched the Patriots’ Super Bowl ticket.
“When you’re a lineman and you see your big back out in front rumbling and you know he’s got a clear path, it’s the greatest thing ever,’’ said Light. “It’s like a walkoff.’’
The Patriots and Steelers have been the AFC’s dominant teams over the past 16 years, combining for nine Super Bowl appearances and six titles.
No matter which team wins Sunday evening’s title tilt, it’ll be heading to its NFL record ninth Super Bowl appearance.
Despite those numbers, however, their paths have only crossed twice in the playoffs, the aforementioned AFC title games.
Overall, the teams have met four times in the second season, though since 1994 they rank 1-2 in AFC playoff wins (New England at 26, Pittsburgh at 20).
Where this rivalry has been built has been in the regular season, where the franchises have met 10 times during that stretch. They’ve butted heads so frequently their matchups have a division rivalry feel.
Additionally, the teams are perennial contenders, ratcheting up the intensity for every showdown.
These games are always treated with postseason hype and frequently played with postseason intensity.
The series has been rather lopsided in the Tom Brady era, with the New England quarterback posting a 7-2 mark against the Steelers in the regular season (he missed Pittsburgh’s 33-10 beatdown in 2008) and a 2-0 mark in the playoffs.
Brady has had some of his sharpest performances against the Steelers — in those 11 career matchups, he’s posted a passer rating over 100 on eight occasions to go along with 26 touchdown passes and just a pair of interceptions.
This is the sixth straight championship game appearance for the Patriots, while the Steelers are making their first appearance since 2010. Both come in white hot — the Steelers have won nine straight, the Patriots eight.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said consistency, something he stresses to his own team, has been key to the Steeler success.
“I have great respect for what they’ve done through the years,’’ said Belichick. “It’s been a very consistent organization in terms of coaching, scouting, ownership, with some modifications over the years, as you would expect over a 40-year period . . . They were pretty consistently tough to deal with through that entire period of time, which has been all of my years in the league. There might have been an [off] year here or there, but for the most part they’ve been at championship level or competing for a championship level for a long period of time. That’s certainly a huge credit to that entire organization.’’
The Patriots beat the host Steelers, 27-16, back on Oct. 23 but both teams will look significantly different in this game.
The Patriots will be without two standouts from that game as Rob Gronkowski (four catches, 93 yards, touchdown) is on injured reserve and linebacker Jamie Collins (eight tackles) is now in Cleveland.
For the Steelers, they get quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back as he missed the Week 7 matchup with a knee injury.
Light believes one of the big reasons for New England’s success in this series is the fact that the Patriots knew the Steelers would be physical and he and his teammates loved the challenged of matching it.
“The truth is, we loved the physical games. We loved the teams that came in that had a swagger,’’ he said. “We’re going to rise for that one. Guys want that physical side of the game. There’s a little bit of — I don’t know if it’s machoism — but it’s fun to go toe-to-toe with guys you know are going to hit you in the mouth.’’
Light believed sometimes the Patriots physicality would catch teams off guard because it wasn’t something they typically talked about – except among themselves.
“Walking into their house and just saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to run it right down your throat and hit some passes down the field.’ I mean it was awesome. Great moments. We kinda thrived on it.’’
Light believes this AFC slugfest will mirror those games he used to play in.
“That’s going to be a big part of what’s going to happen this week,’’ he said. “I don’t think [the Steelers] are going to be afraid to maybe have a couple of 15-yarders thrown because they’re going to try and set that tempo and bring that attitude.’’
Keeping cool while still bringing the heat is the key for the home team.
“[The Patriots] can’t fall for the bait in terms of pushing back when somebody does something stupid,’’ he said. “But they definitely gotta fight fire with fire and hit them right in the mouth and send the same message back to them.”