The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently sitting atop the AFC playoff picture after defeating the Packers 31-28 on Sunday night. The NFC may be hotly contested for the top spots in the playoff standings, but the AFC appears to be easily led by the Steelers and Patriots with everyone else playing just to get in the playoffs. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been around long enough to know what’s going on. His Steelers and Patriots are likely to do battle for the top spot in the AFC playoff standings, and later for the right to go to the Super Bowl. To put it simply, Tomlin is stoked about that.
“I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room. (The game is) going to be fireworks,” Tomlin said in a recorded interview with Tony Dungy that was played before Sunday Night Football between the Steelers and Green Bay Packers. Tomlin was referring to the regular season matchup coming down the pipeline on December 17, but he didn’t stop there. Tomlin is already setting the stage for the AFC Championship Game, and he’s not backing down from that.
“And it’s probably going to be Part 1. That’s going to be a big game,” Tomlin said. “But probably, if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to, the second one is really going to be a big game. Then what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, which is going to determine the location of the second one.”
Tomlin is probably accurate with that outlook. The Steelers and Patriots each have a two-game lead on the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, who could be playing for the No. 3 seed. The Steelers and Patriots still have two division games to play before their major showdown in Week 15, so the possibility of a pair of 11-win teams squaring off late in the season to determine which team gets home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs is well within reason. The winner will have the upper hand in the jockeying for the No. 1 seed.
As much as Tomlin appears to be motivated by the idea of going toe-to-toe against the Patriots, those matchups in the postseason have not gone well for the Steelers. Since 1996, the Patriots have gone 4-1 against the Steelers after last year’s AFC Championship Game victory. The last three meetings between the two gold standards of the AFC have all gone the way of the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots also own a four-game winning streak against the Steelers.
Not surprisingly, Tom Brady has been one of the key factors tipping the scale in favor of the Patriots over the years. Brady is 7-2 against the Steelers with 24 touchdowns and just three interceptions thrown in those nine games. His passer rating of 114.2 is the second-highest Brady owns against any NFL team. Falcons fans will be well aware of which team Brady’s highest passer rating is against. Following last season’s AFC Championship victory, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Joe Starkey suggested Tomlin should be embarrassed by being beaten by Brady yet again.
Listen, there is no shame in losing to Brady. But there is much shame in losing to him the way the Steelers do. They make it easy on him. No pass rush. Busted coverages. Guys running ridiculously open. Mike Tomlin (and Bill Cowher before him) and defensive coordinator Keith Butler (and Dick LeBeau before him) should be mortified at what Brady has done to them.
Last year, with an entire offseason to prepare, the Steelers were disorganized and literally did not cover the Patriots’ top weapon (Rob Gronkowski) on several plays. In this game, Brady sat back there like he always does against the Steelers and lit them up for a franchise postseason record 384 yards. He completed 32 of 42 passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions.
With the Patriots having so much success against Tomlin and the Steelers, what is it that drives Tomlin to look forward to such a possible matchup in a few weeks and again in the postseason? Is it the chip on his shoulder with knowing the Patriots have his number? Maybe. What good coach would not be motivated to buck a disturbing trend that haunts them? Or maybe it is just the opportunity to prove yourself against the best of the best.
Tomlin is certainly not lacking in confidence, which you expect to hear from a head coach. But Tomlin should be careful about looking ahead to the Patriots with such enthusiasm. History has suggested this may not end well for him, and the Patriots have worked out the kinks in their defense seen earlier in the season.