Patriots-Steelers pick up ferocious rivalry again Sunday
By John Ingoldsby
December 6, 2007
However, there have been three memorable Pats-Steelers games during the ensuing five years since my declaration, and this Sunday's Super Bowl 41¾ could add luster to this rivalry's 14-year run, particularly if the "Stillers" ruin the Pats' current March to History.
Picking up where I left off with my last article in September 2002, the Patriots began defense of their first Super Bowl title by opening Bob Kraft's glistening new palace on Route 1 with a resounding 30-14 thumping of Pittsburgh.
That Thursday night national TV game opened the NFL season with the unveiling of the first Super Bowl banner, and is memorable for the Pats' fabulous offensive display and the defense harassing Kordell Stewart into submission.
Surprisingly, like he had done after losing the AFC Championship game the year before, Stewart said after the game that the better team had not won the game. Interestingly, it was perhaps one of Stewart's last pronouncement of interest since his uniquely famous "Slash" career spiraled downward from here.
One of my vivid personal memories of attending that game will always be the well-known Queen anthem "We Are The Champions" being played over the PA system, but then being abruptly being stopped in mid-song.
I always imagined Coach Bill Belichick hearing it and ordering its immediate halt direct from the sidelines. Given the control that Belichick has shown since that memorable night, I still believe that is exactly what happened.
The next time these two squads squared off was on Halloween night in 2004, when the 'Burghers blitzed New England 34-20, thereby ending the Pats' record 18-game regular season winning streak, which was actually 21 straight if you included playoff wins.
My personal memory of this game was bumming out that I was going to miss the beginning while I took my kids trick-or-treating (some things in life are non-negotiable and do actually take precedence over football), but coming into my house and seeing the Steelers were ahead by like 21-0 in the first quarter. Needless to say, it was easy to sit down and enjoy counting candy with my kids since the outcome was never in doubt.
This was not the last they would see of each other that year, as the Patriots traveled to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship game and whupped the Steeltowners 41-27 on the way to their third Super Bowl Championship. This game was famous, of course, for stopping Jerome Bettis on the fourth-and-one, as well as Rodney Harrison's 87-yard interception return at the end of the first half to quiet the crowd for good.
My personal memory of this one is catching the last plane out of Boston Saturday afternoon to Pittsburgh, before the largest snowfall in Boston history blanketed the area. Had the game been scheduled for Gillette Stadium, Patriots executives said the start time would have had to be delayed in what would have been a first for an NFL conference championship.
The other memory (besides it being the coldest I ever was at a football game) as I stood behind the Patriot bench at game's end was of the vicious exchange between various Patriots and disappointed, angry Steelers fans, punctuated by Deion Branch openly taunting the fans, as shown in accompanying photo that I took that evening.
The two archenemies went at it again the following September when Tom Brady pulled off one of his patented last-minute game-winning drives, and Adam Vinatieri kicked a field goal to secure a 23-20 victory.
This bloodbath is of course famous for the devastating knee injury to Rodney Harrison, when Belichick waved off the Steelers training staff as his All-Pro defensive back lay writhing on the Heinz Field turf.
Following on that theme, there is also film from one of these Heinz Field games that shows Brady walking off the field and, shall we say, colorfully expressing his utter disdain for all things Pittsburgh and Steelers. Make no mistake when you watch this Sunday, there is no team that Brady, and perhaps even Belichick, have more animosity towards than the Steelers.
That was the last time these two met, and which is unfortunate in that I always felt we missed out when the Pats lost to Denver in the playoffs, thereby preventing the Steelers from coming to Foxboro for the AFC Championship game in January 2006, in what may have been the epic capstone to this rivalry.
The Steelers that January were the all-time Road Warrior team en route to their Super Bowl Championship in Detroit. But I always wondered what would have happened if the two would have met in Foxboro, the basically unbeatable-looking Steelers vs. the Pats at home gunning for the chance to become the NFL's first-ever Three-Peat Super Bowl Champion.
We will never know about that one, but we will know about this one on Sunday, which yet again has history on the line as the Steelers try to end the Pats undefeated season.
And on Sunday, there is one HUGE difference between this game and the Pats' two near losses the last two weeks - Ben Roethlisberger. Where A.J. Feeley and Kyle Boller were unable to close the deal, Big Ben is absolutely able to pull it off if the opportunity presents itself, especially at game's end. I believe it will take a special performance from a special athlete to beat the Patriots during this magical year, and Ben is the only special player left on the Patriots schedule this year.
But yet the Patriots have beaten the Steelers five of the last six meetings, but the one Pittsburgh victory ended an historic Patriots win streak, which is exactly what the Steelers are trying to accomplish on Sunday.
Despite the short week from Monday night's scintillating comeback win over Baltimore, I expect the Patriots to come out highly energized and it would behoove them to take control of the game early. They would be wise to do so, and not put Roethlisberger in the position that Feeley and Boller found themselves in - a date with destiny by being the quarterback who ended the Patriots' dream season.
Former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch taunts Steelers fans in Heinz Field at the end of AFC Championship game on January 23, 2005. (Photo John Ingoldsby PatriotsInsider.com)
One thing's for sure, the game will be absolutely memorable. Patriots-Colts may be the NFL's best current rivalry, but Patriots-Steelers is the NFL's longest current rivalry. Just read below in case you need a reminder.
THE LOWELL (MA) SUN
Pats-Steelers: A renewal of hostilities Sept. 9
Sunday, September 1, 2002
By John Ingoldsby
Special to The Sun
When the New England Patriots raise their Super Bowl flag in front of the Pittsburgh Steelers a week from tomorrow night at the Grand Opening of Gillette Stadium, they will be adding insult to the injury they inflicted on the Steelers in last year's AFC championship game.
With the proud Steelers still licking their wounds from January's bloodletting at Heinz Field, the potential for a cataclysmic battle before a national audience in the Monday Night Football opener looms large.
We should expect nothing less since it will be a continuation of what arguably has become the best rivalry in the NFL today, succeeding the San Francisco 49ers-Dallas Cowboys rivalry that lasted into the mid-1990s.
Consider these facts:
The two teams have met in the playoffs three times since the 1996 season, with the Patriots winning twice and going to the Super Bowl both times. They have met four times in the regular season since 1993, with the Steelers winning thrice. All four regular season games were played in December, with two being played as Saturday national TV games. Each year they met in December, one of the two teams made the playoffs, and both made it in 1997. The Steelers hold a 4-3 edge in the seven games overall since 1993.
Quite simply, no other pair of NFL teams have played as many important games with so much on the line during the past decade, particularly in this era of parity.
However, it's not only the tight won-loss record in these big games that sets this rivalry apart. It's that the playoff games have been unforgettable and the regular season games have been both meaningful and memorable. Each contest has had its own identity with action on the field and story lines off the field.
The playoff clashes have been so momentous that they have an actual name attached or can be recalled with one phrase: The Fog Bowl in Foxboro, the Vrabel-forced fumble, and last year's "Can I have your hotel room in New Orleans" nastiness.
The regular season games also are easily remembered: The Kevin Henry Interception game, the Bledsoe failed quarterback sneak ending, the Bledsoe broken finger stretch, and the rookie Curtis Martin Pittsburgh homecoming.
Some constants have remained through all seven games, such as Patriot receiver Troy Brown and Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher, now the longest-tenured coach in the NFL. Other constants will be missing for the first time Sept. 9, such as Foxboro Stadium itself and, most notably, former Pats quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who played a major role both good and bad in most of the seven games.
But constants don't seem to matter at this point only a knock-down-drag-out recent history with plenty of familiarity and war stories on both sides.
The turning-point game that began to elevate the series in stature would undoubtedly be The Fog Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 5, 1997.
It was a certifiably big event, even as playoff games go. Both teams were 11-5 and the powerhouse Steelers were the defending AFC champions, having lost to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl the previous year. The Patriots were in year three of the Bill Parcells regime, and had just clinched the AFC East championship two weeks earlier with a pulsating comeback victory over the New York Giants.
Against that backdrop, everyone in the Foxboro area awoke to an unseasonably warm, eerily foggy morning that was more suitable to a Vincent Price horror film than an NFL playoff game. But from the opening gun, it was the Steelers who were to find themselves trapped in a horror chamber known as Foxboro Stadium.
On the game's first play from scrimmage, Bledsoe hit rookie record-holding receiver Terry Glenn (remember him?) with a bomb to the Steelers' two-yard line, the first of seven straight completions to open the game, and set the tone for the day.
Curtis Martin punched it in moments later for the first of his three touchdowns on the day, and the 28-3 rout was on. The next week the Pats beat the Jacksonville Jaguars en route to their Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers.
However, 363 days later, the Men of Steel would exact their revenge by ending the Patriots' season with a 7-6 playoff victory in Three Rivers Stadium.
Again, the temperature and the emotions were both high as defense dominated. And it was defense, or lack thereof, that produced the game's two most memorable plays. The first and only touchdown occurred in the first quarter when quarterback Kordell Stewart tiptoed down the sidelines for a 40-yard score. It's remembered by all in New England as the play where linebacker Todd Collins shockingly failed to simply push Stewart out of bounds when he had him squarely in his sights near the beginning of the run.
The other decisive play came at the end when all Pats fans were feeling it a comeback victory that is until Steeler rookie linebacker Mike Vrabel barreled into Drew Bledsoe, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Steeler linebacker Jason Gildon. Game over, season over.
Vrabel, now a Patriot, reflected on the hit a few weeks ago, saying: "Looking back, things never seem as big at the time, but people up here sure know me for that hit and it stands out. I was just looking to make a play."
Just 20 days prior to Vrabel's game-saving hit against Bledsoe, home field playoff advantage had gone to the Steelers when they and the Pats staged their penultimate regular-season slugfest.
It was a 4 p.m. Saturday national TV extravaganza as one of the most boisterous crowds ever in Foxboro stood practically the entire game. That was the game when Bledsoe was simply protecting a lead at the end and inexplicably threw the ball into defensive lineman Kevin Henry's waiting hands, and the Steelers capitalized on the stunning turnover to win 24-21 in overtime.
Four years earlier, the Patriots had lost an equally frustrating 17-14 game at the gun when Bledsoe was stuffed on a quarterback sneak from the one-yard line. He was a rookie then, but it was the early warning signal that the Patriots probably weren't going to be winning many games with Bledsoe's running.
Two years later, on Saturday, December 16, 1995, the Patriots lost 41-27 in Pittsburgh as Curtis Martin returned to his hometown with a big game, but the Steelers were already flashing their soon-to-be Super Bowl form.
The last regular season game between the teams was in 1998, two weeks after Bledsoe had broken his finger and led the Pats to two breakthrough comeback victories over Miami and Buffalo. He kept it going in Three Rivers that day as he hit Glenn with an 86-yard TD to ignite the 23-9 victory.
The next time the Pats and Steelers would meet was last January, when Bledsoe returned from his Mo Lewis injury to lead the Patriots to the AFC title. In the aftermath, his teammates were screaming at the Steelers and Cowher for their New Orleans hotel rooms after their ill-advised reservations earlier that week. The hard feelings carried over the next day when Kordell Stewart said, "The best team doesn't always win."
"When the two teams play, it's always a great game and we are always looking to see what they are doing knowing it may have playoff implications," said Patriot safety Lawyer Milloy. When apprised of the Niners-Cowboy rivalry comparison, Milloy showed he hasn't forgotten last year's theme, saying: "Finally, someone's giving US some respect."
Even understated Patriots coach Bill Belichick, acknowledged the rivalry, saying, "There is no doubt about it. There have been a lot of important games between the Patriots and Steelers."
And there will be another one to start the 2002 season on the biggest stage of all: Monday Night Football's season opener before a national TV audience.
Are you ready for some football?
(John Ingoldsby is a former Sun news editor and a Patriots season ticket holder)
John Ingoldsby has written articles on the New England Patriots for various media outlets during the past 13 years, and began writing about the NFL in the 1970s. He is a member of the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA) and the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association (NSSA). You can find John on the Patriots Insider boards under the handle Rudiee.