When the Steelers and the Patriots play Sunday for the AFC Championship, there will be much more at stake then just a Super Bowl appearance. How history will look at both these franchises in terms of AFC dominance is also in play. The Steelers are the gold standard right now with six Super Bowl trophies to their credit. New England has become a major challenger now, owning 4 championships of their own and threatening for a fifth. A win for the Steelers on Sunday would cement their hold on being the elite team in AFC history. On the other hand, a Patriot victory and subsequent Super Bowl victory would give them a claim to that title.
New England has unquestionably owned the last 15 years n the AFC. Bill Belichick’s team has been to 10 out of the last 15 AFC Championship games, including the last 5 in a row. This run has not been without it’s controversies however. Everything from the famous tuck rule, to “spy gate” and “deflate gate” have marred the Patriot’s recent run of success. Those incidents took their toll on the franchise as they went through a ten year drought between Super Bowl victories. With all that behind them, and another title under their belt, New England is poised to make run at all-time AFC dominance. The only thing standing in their way is……….the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers have been the only consistent threat to the Patriots recent rule of the AFC. Pittsburgh has 2 Super Bowl trophies of their own, and 3 appearances total during this time period. Pittsburgh has not faired well head to head with New England however. They are 0-2 in AFC title games versus the Patriots. Amazingly, these two teams have never met in the playoffs since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in Pittsburgh. A win over Bill Belichick in this game would do wonders for his legacy. Tomlin has taken some hits from members of the national media questioning how good a coach he really is. Even former legend Terry Bradshaw took a some shots saying Tomlin “wasn’t a great coach” and is “more like a cheer leader”. A third Super Bowl appearance and possible second title would put him in rarified company and certainly quiet all critics.
A victory on Sunday may also close out the Patriot dynasty for good. How long can Tom Brady continue to perform at this high a level past the age of 40? Rob Gronkowski will miss the game due to injury, and seems to be breaking down at this point of his career. At 64 years old, one must even wonder how much longer Bill Belichick will want to keep coaching. New England needs this victory and another Super Bowl to be considered the all time best AFC team. Pittsburgh’s core players are much younger then those in New England. Stars like Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Le’veon Bell, Cam Heyward, David DeCastero and Antonio Brown are all under 30. Then there’s emerging players like Stephon Tuitt, Martavis Bryant, and the three draft picks from 2016. Burns, Hargrave and Davis have been major contributors in thier first full year in the NFL. It does seem like this game could be a changing of the guard in the AFC. The question is do the Patriots go out with a bang, or do the Steelers send them home with a whimper?