Over the last 14 seasons the AFC has been almost exclusively a three man team race for the conference's berth in the Super Bowl. It's either been (with the exception of Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens in 2012) Tom Brady's Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers, or wherever Peyton Manning was playing in the Super Bowl representing the AFC every year since 2003.
I'm not a math guy, but I am an odds and statistics guy (mainly from years of gambling) and it blows my mind that despite being two of the premiere franchises of the conference, for over a decade, the Patriots and Steelers have not met in the playoffs since the 2004 AFC Championship game. You'd think just by happenstance there would be a few more Pats-Steelers match ups in the playoffs. Just by the laws of probability (that's a thing right?) that these guys would meet up in the playoffs more frequently given the long reign of success both franchises and quarterbacks have had since 2003.
Yet Big Ben and TB-12 have not. You have to go all the way back to January of 2005 for the last time two met. The 2004 AFC Championship Game, Roethlisberger's rookie year. January of 2005. I was 13 years old. It's been a loooooong time coming for these two great teams.
That season saw the Steelers end the Patriots record 21 game win streak on Halloween. The Steelers were on their way to a 15-1 regular season under the rookie QB after a very disappointing 2003. The Patriots would go 14-2 in 04 and later get revenge in a 41-27 win at Pittsburgh en route to their 3rd Super Bowl victory in 4 seasons. The loss was the first of Roethlisberger's pro career. Given the circumstances of their first two meetings and the high stakes involved in those games from the 2004 season a rivalry between the two never really took off.
In 8 meetings between the two QBs Brady has a 6-2 record, but two of those games came in 2004. Since 2005 the two QBs have only faced off 6 times. Considering how NFL scheduling works you'd think the number would be higher but injuries have also robbed the match-up. As Big Ben and the Steelers beat Matt Cassel's Patriots in 2008 and this season the Pats handled a Landry Jones led Steeler team.
Yet in the dozen years since that AFC Championship game both franchise have been quite successful. Both have been to three Super Bowls. After this weekend when someone wins it will be the 7th time in 13 seasons one of these teams is in the Super Bowl. The Steelers previously won in 2005 and 2008 and lost to the Packers in 2010. While the Patriots lost in 2007 and 2011 to the New York Giants and defeated the Seahawks in 2014.
Somehow it took until the 2016 season to get Brady-Roethlisberger II in the playoffs. There's been close calls, but the stars never could quite align at the same time for the two teams the meet up again. Given how often both teams have been in the playoffs it does seem quite unlikely that the two teams haven't face off more regularly. The Patriots have only missed the playoffs once since 2004, 2008. In that 2008 season the Pats went 11-5 with a back-up QB and missed out on the postseason thanks to a tie-breaker. In 2008 the Steelers took full advantage of a Tom Brady-less AFC as they won the Super Bowl. Going into the season the Patriots coming off a 16-0 regular season with almost the entire team returning were favorites to return the Super Bowl in 2008. That didn't happen as Tom Brady torn his ACL early in the first week of the season. Had Brady been healthy they very well could've met in the playoffs and history may have turned out a lot differently. Thanks a lot Bernard Pollard. The Steelers have been in the playoffs nine times out of a possible 13 since 2004. Both teams made the playoffs in 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015 but their paths never crossed, until now.
Brady and Roethlisberger will go down as 2 of the 5 best quarterbacks of this generation, with Brady possibly going down as the greatest of all time. Yet come postseason and honestly regular season too there are no truly classic moments between the two. They'll both be remembered more for their battles against Joe Flacco. Brady has faced him four times in the playoffs, Big Ben three.
Then of course there's Brady-Manning, most prominent rivalry of this generation. The two played five games against each other in the playoffs, including 4 AFC Championship Games, where Peyton holds a 3-1 edge. Roethlisberger also played two playoff games against Manning. The games were a decade apart. In 2005 and 2015 the winner of each match-up would go onto win the Super Bowl.
Tom Brady has played QBs like Phil Rivers, Eli Manning and Andrew Luck more often than Ben Roethlisberger. Brady has played the Jacksonville Jaguars in the playoffs more times than he's played Pittsburgh. Given the landscape of the NFL it just doesn't seem right, but it's true. He beat them in 2005 and 2007. In 2007 the Jaguars squeaked by Pittsburgh 31-29 in a match-up that sent the winner to Foxboro. That was the first instance where another potential Brady-Roethlisberger match-up in the playoffs did not occur.
So how is it possible that two of the most dominate teams in the AFC over the last dozen years who both have won the conference 3 times have not played each other in a single postseason contest since 2004? To simply put it; upsets. Some of the most shocking upsets in NFL history have prevented these two great franchises from meeting up more frequently when the games mattered most. Let's take a look.
2010: 11-5 Jets beat 14-2 Patriots in AFC Divisional Playoffs
In 2010 the New England Patriots were rolling. They went 14-2 that season and had according to
"Football Outsiders" had the best offense in league history. One of their most convincing victories of the season came against the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Football. A 39-26 Patriot victory that introduced the world to Rob Gronkowski as the rookie TE scored 3 touchdowns in the win .
Going into the playoffs it appeared that the Patriots and Steelers were headed for a collision course for the AFC Championship game. The Patriots at 14-2 were the one seed and the Steelers who finished 12-4 were the two. They both just needed to beat division rivals in the divisional round to set up an epic AFC Championship game. The Steelers held on against Joe Flacco and the Ravens, but Rex Ryan and his "let's go eat a god damned snack" Jets had other ideas.
The Mark Sanchez led New York Jets who just little over a month previously lost to the Patriots in Foxboro 45-3 came into Gillette and beat the Patriots 28-21 in what I believe is the most shocking loss in the Tom Brady Patriot history. Even more so than Super Bowl XLII. This game was not even as close as the score shows since the Patriots scored a late touchdown to bring the gap with little time remaining.
The next week instead of facing off against the Patriots in Foxboro, now the Steelers got the Jets at home for the AFC Championship game. The Steelers ultimately won 24-19 before falling to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers two weeks later in the Super Bowl.
2011: 8-8 Denver Broncos beat 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers in AFC Wild-Card Playoffs
In 2011 the roles were reversed. It was the Steelers who bested the Patriots in the regular season and to date is their most recent victory against the Pats. In week 8, coming off a bye the Patriots lost in Pittsburgh to the Steelers 25-17.
Despite the victory against New England and a 12-4 record the Steelers finished second to the Ravens in the AFC North. Both teams went 12-4 in the regular season but since they went 0-2 against the Ravens the Steelers entered the playoffs as a wild-card at 12-4 and had to head to Denver to face off against the 8-8 Tim Tebow led Denver Broncos.
Sporting the top defense in the NFL and facing a Bronco team that limped into the playoffs losing 3 straight games to fall from 8-5 to 8-8 it appeared that the Steelers would handle the Broncos to set up a rematch with the Patriots. Big Ben had won a playoff game in Denver before. Something Tom Brady cannot claim.
But Tebow had one more miracle up his sleeve against the Steelers. Despite only having 10 completions in the game Tebow threw for 316 yards and a walk off touchdown in the first playoff game under the "new" over time rules. The Broncos would upset the Steelers 29-23 in an epic wild-card game.
Had the 7.5 point favorites not lost in one of the most shocking upsets in NFL history it would've been the Steelers playing the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs instead of God love him, Tim Tebow. The Patriots would beat the Broncos in a laugher 45-10 on their run to Super Bowl XLVI. As the Broncos defense was no match for Tom Brady who threw 6 touchdowns in the win. Who knows what would've happened in a Pats-Steelers rematch?
2014: 10-6 Baltimore Ravens beat 11-5 Pittsburgh Steelers
The 2014 upset was not as shocking as years previous but it still robbed us of a potential Patriots-Steelers matchup.
In 2014 the Pittsburgh Steelers returned to glory after two straight 8-8 campaigns finishing 11-5 and winning the AFC North. With Big Ben, Antonio Brown and 2nd year RB Le'Veon Bell the Steelers had one of the most lethal offenses in the NFL. Le'Veon Bell was an AP 1st Team All-Pro running back but missed the playoff game due to an knee injury.
When the two played in Pittsburgh earlier in the year the Steelers rolled 43-23. Without Bell the Steelers struggled and lost to the Ravens 30-17 at home. Going into the game the Steelers were a 3 point favorite.
Although they were the 3 seed that year and the Patriots were the 1, meaning the only way they could meet in the playoffs was the AFC Championship, many expected that to be the match up going into the playoffs because of the other teams in the postseason.
Had the Steelers taken care of business they would've gone into Denver to face the Broncos who were 12-4 but struggling mightily going into the playoffs as this was the beginning of the end for Peyton Manning physically as a passer. Despite throwing 39 touchdowns in 2014 only 3 came after week 12. He wasn't the same guy as he was earlier in the season and the Broncos lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, who would've played the Patriots had the Steelers won. Instead the Patriots played Baltimore in a classic 35-31 win that included two separate 14 point comebacks. Had Le'Veon Bell been healthy in the wild-card round there's a great possibility this play never happens.
After a dozen years of nearly bumping into each other on their way to Super Bowls the Steelers and Patriots will finally meet again in the playoffs. A dozen years have passed. The only guys left from those 2004 teams are the QBs, Brady and Roethlisberger. Anything from their previous match-ups in 2013, 2015 and 2016 can be thrown out. The teams are nothing like they were even in the game from this season. The Pats had Gronk and the Steelers didn't have Big Ben.
After 12 years between AFC Championship Games will this game be truly worth the wait? We'll know Sunday night.