By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Casey Hampton isn't sure whether the Steelers' recent history against the New England Patriots constitutes a "rivalry," but he knows this much: It's never a small game.
"If you need fuel for the fire to play these guys," Hampton says, "you shouldn't play."
Rivalry or not, be sure that when these decorated franchises collide, the game is fraught with meaning -- sometimes obvious (winner goes to Super Bowl), sometimes not (loser makes necessary changes, goes to Super Bowl).
Yes, somebody usually goes to the Super Bowl.
Dating to Tom Brady's first year as New England's quarterback in 2001, the Patriots and Steelers have squared off in seven seasons. One has advanced to the Super Bowl six times. I'd say the odds are pretty good it'll happen again.
And whether anyone admits as much, the teams don't particularly like each other. Consider five classic quotes:
5. "Usually, where there is smoke, there's fire. Those rumors are founded on something, so it is not totally shocking, no." Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, when "Spygate" broke in 2007.
4. "We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you." Patriots coach Bill Belichick, after his team humiliated the Steelers and safety Anthony Smith (who had guaranteed a win) in '07.
3. "I don't care what Coach Belichick has to say regarding our performance." Tomlin, in response to Belichick ripping Smith.
2. "@#$%&@#$&!!!" or whatever Brady yelled to Steelers fans after his full-windup touchdown spike last season.
1. "We were the best team in football in 2004, but the Patriots, who we beat during the regular season, stole our signals and picked up 90 percent of our blitzes (in AFC title game)." James Harrison, to Men's Journal last summer.
One way or another, today's game is likely to have sizeable implications. We just might not realize them until late winter.
Last year's blowout loss to the Patriots, for example, appeared to identify the Steelers as an AFC pretender but instead propelled them toward a conference title.
Tomlin made wholesale changes within hours of the loss, firing kicker Jeff Reed, shuffling his offensive line and committing to the unusual move of putting his team in pads for a Wednesday practice. The Steelers won eight of nine en route to Super Bowl XLV.
With all that in mind, a look at Steelers-Patriots since '01:
• 2001 AFC Championship, Heinz Field: Patriots, 24-17.
At stake: Bill Cowher's reputation.
Images: Besides Troy Brown running all over the place? How about the Patriots' victory stand sitting in the middle of Heinz Field, and owner Bob Kraft saying, "I'd like to thank the Rooney family and the Steelers for treating us so well." He meant it as a compliment.
Upshot: Start of Patriots dynasty and, yes, three Super Bowl wins in four years qualifies as one.
• 2002 season opener, Gillette Stadium: Patriots, 30-14.
At stake: Patriots' reputation after what some labeled a fluky Super Bowl run.
Images: Stadium opening with pomp, pageantry and Brady carving the Steelers like a Thanksgiving turkey. At one point, he attempted 25 straight passes.
Upshot: Brady providing perhaps the only blueprint on how to torture the Steelers by spreading them out and forcing them to cover.
• 2004 regular season, Heinz Field: Steelers, 34-20.
At stake: Patriots' NFL-record 18-game regular-season winning streak.
Images: Steelers executing aggressive offensive plan they'd be wise to emulate today. They scored 21 first-quarter points then bludgeoned Pats late, running off final 6:27 on seven runs, a pass and three kneel-downs.
Upshot: Belichick would not forget those final minutes, pounding the image into his team's psyche for title-game rematch. ... Oh yes, and the Patriots broke NFL rules by taping the Steelers' defensive signals. Did they use the information to their advantage in the rematch? We might never know.
• 2004 AFC Championship, Heinz Field: Patriots, 41-27.
At stake: Trip to Super Bowl.
Images: Jerome Bettis stopped on early fourth-and-1. ... There goes Rodney Harrison. ... Deion Branch taunting Steelers on late score.
Upshot: Pats won it all, but I'll always remember Ben Roethlisberger's resilience. Most rookies would have crumbled after such a first-half calamity. He led a stirring comeback instead and had a chance to cut the lead to seven early in the fourth, only to see Cowher kick a buzz-killing field goal on fourth-and-goal. Strange as it might sound, this game proved Roethlisberger's mental toughness.
• 2005 regular season, Heinz Field: Patriots, 23-20.
At stake: Steelers' 16-game regular-season winning streak.
Images: Roethlisberger and Brady trading late drives. ... Brady completing final 12 passes.
Upshot: Probably should have played again in AFC Championship, but Patriots slipped up in Denver.
• 2007 regular season, Gillette Stadium: Patriots. 34-13.
At stake: Anthony Smith's guarantee, Patriots' 12-0 record.
Images: Smith getting roasted like a rotisserie chicken. ... Randy Moss completing a pass.
Upshot: Smith never recovered. Patriots didn't lose until Super Bowl.
• 2008 regular season, Gillette Stadium: Steelers, 33-10.
At stake: As it turned out, a playoff spot for Pats.
Images: Matt Cassel instead of Brady. ... Lots of rain. ... Lots of Lawrence Timmons. ... Ryan Clark nearly breaking Wes Welker in half.
Upshot: Key win for Super Bowl-bound Steelers; monumental loss for Pats, who missed playoffs and No. 2 seed by a game.
• 2010 regular season, Heinz Field: Patriots, 39-26.
At stake: As it turned out, Jeff Reed's job.
Images: Hines Ward unsuccessfully demanding re-entry after head injury (and seeing streak of 186 straight games with a catch snapped). ... Brady's spike. ... Reed unleashing stream of excuses after missing 26-yard field goal.
Upshot: Steelers shamed into competence.
• 2011 regular season, Heinz Field: To be determined.
At stake: TBD, possibly No. 1 seed in AFC playoffs.
Prediction: Gisele Bundchen's husband, as always, patiently takes what Steelers give him and rolls up 30 points only to be outdone by Roethlisberger and his young receivers, who put up 34. Oh, and one of the two winds up in the Super Bowl.