Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Patriots-Steelers. This is epic. It’s is a classic clash of football cultures.
The Patriots do things quietly. The Steelers are loud.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots pretend it’s just another game. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers go into Hype Overdrive.
But we know how it will unfold. After all the news and noise, the Patriots will go into Pittsburgh and cut the Steelers’ hearts out. Again.
The Patriots had plenty of problems in Miami on Monday night. They were outplayed and outcoached. Tom Brady had one of the worst games of his career. New England’s wide receivers were invisible. The Patriots’ offensive line played on roller skates. Cornerback Malcolm Butler was terrible, then compounded his poor play by retweeting a tweet that highlighted Jay Cutler’s success against New England’s blitzes.
On Sunday, the Patriots play the team with the best record in the conference. If the Patriots lose, they risk falling to the third seed and being forced to play a first-round playoff game for the first time since 2009. They would also cede home field in a potential AFC Championship game against the Steelers.
Meanwhile, there’s mounting tension in Foxborough because Brady’s training guru, Alex Guerrero, no longer travels with the team. Belichick doesn’t want Brady’s training svengali (who treats a couple of dozen other Patriots players) flying with the team, or standing on the Patriots’ sideline in team apparel. It’s hard to imagine Brady’s happy about this.
All of the above would alarm most teams and most fan bases, but the Patriots and their followers are not alarmed.
Why? It’s simple. Patriot Nation has no fear of Heinz Field and little respect for Tomlin and the mighty Steelers.
You won’t hear any of this from Belichick or any of his players, of course. The Patriots are too seasoned and smart to supply the enemy with motivation. But Belichick knows he’s the boss of Tomlin and the Patriots know they can handle the Steelers. Patriots fans are trained to be cocky when the Steelers are standing in the way of Patriot destiny.
How many of you remember anything about last year’s AFC Championship game?
I looked it up and the clips indicate that the Patriots manhandled the Steelers, 36-17, on a rainy, 40 degree night in Foxborough. With Tomlin applying the same losing defensive schemes he always features, Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots converted 11 of 17 first downs. It was the worst defensive performance against the Patriots in their entire Super Bowl-winning season. Will the Steelers have the stones to blitz the Patriots early in this weekend’s game?
The Patriots always beat the Steelers. With Brady at quarterback, the Patriots are 10-2 (including playoffs) against the Steelers since 2002. They are 3-0 vs. the Steelers in the playoffs in the same span. With Brady at QB, they are 5-2 at Heinz Field.
We delight in mocking the Steelers. We poke fun at Tomlin talking about his players’ injuries with unusual detail and precision. Tomlin will tell you exactly what happened to his player and even project the date of that player’s return to action. This is not how Belichick rolls. If a Patriots player were scheduled for a leg amputation, Belichick would not disclose which leg was coming off. You’d have to figure it out with a visual inspection next time you see the guy.
We chuckled last month when Tomlin talked about the Patriot matchup when he still had games to play vs. the Bengals and Ravens. When the Patriots had games in front of them vs. the Bills and Dolphins, Belichick could not have been waterboarded into talking about Pittsburgh.
In the 17-year reign of Belichick and Brady, New England has won three road playoff games. Two of those were in Pittsburgh, both AFC Championship games.
Beating the Steelers is always more fun than beating the Falcons, Seahawks, Eagles, Panthers or Rams. It’s almost as much fun as beating the Jets. Part of it is because of the abject insecurity of Steelers fans. Pittsburgh is a terrific NFL city and Heinz Field is one of the league’s great venues. The Steelers have won more Super Bowls than any franchise. Western Pennsylvania football fans are knowledgeable, tough, and bleed black and gold.
All that said, those folks are wildly insecure when it comes to the Patriots. They’re still crying about Deflategate and Spygate. And let’s not forget the 2015 September matchup in Foxborough when Tomlin and the Steelers accused the Patriots of cheating by putting the voice of Scott Zolak into Pittsburgh’s headsets during the first quarter.
How do the Steelers counter that? Do they put the voice of the late Myron Cope in Brady’s headset Sunday? Do they put their six Lombardi trophies on display outside the Patriots’ locker room?
Tomlin on Wednesday took a shot at the Patriots’ insistence that this is just another game, stating, “We all talk goals . . . it’s ridiculous to goal-set and not acknowledge natural things along the way . . . We were simply answering questions . . . When we do interviews and people ask us about potential big games down the road, we’re going to politely answer questions and do so honestly . . . That’s us simply performing our professional duties.”
There you go. The Steelers are different from the Patriots.
But deep down, we all know the Steelers can’t beat them.
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