From the right angle, Patriots-Steelers rivalry has been closer than you think

Although the people who cover the NFL rightly have been building Sunday’s matchup between the Patriots (10-3), reigning Super Bowl champions, and the Steelers (11-2), current holders of the league’s best record, into the game of the season, they’ve not been nearly so industrious as the good people of the Steel City.

They’ve managed to turn the visiting Patriots into the Steelers’ Mount Everest.

There is no doubting the Patriots have been the NFL’s dominant franchise over the past two decades. They’ve won 35 more games than any other team since the turn of the century. They’ve won five of the past 16 Super Bowls. They’ve more than controlled the series between the two teams during that same period, with a 10-3 record that includes three wins over the Steelers in AFC championship games.

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Even with all of that, however, the stories of the Patriots’ dominance have been exaggerated. A lot depends on the timeframe one considers. For instance, New England’s run of excellence began in Brady’s second year as an NFL quarterback, which eventually became his first as the team’s starter. Well, what if we begin in Ben Roethlisberger’s second season?

Using that to define the conversation produces a couple of facts that might shock you, given how the Patriots are exalted by Steelers fans. Since 2005, the Patriots have won two Super Bowls. The Steelers have won two Super Bowls. I was a pretty terrible math student, but I know when to use the = sign.

In that same period, the Patriots have been to four Super Bowls. The Steelers have been to three.

To use the entire Brady/Belichick era to define the relationship between these two teams seems distorted. The Steelers changed coaches along the way because of Bill Cowher’s retirement. There is not a single Steelers player still active from their 2001 championship game. Pittsburgh’s star running back at the time, Jerome Bettis, has been retired so long he’s been in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for nearly three years.

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During the course of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ remarkable comeback victory Sunday night over the Baltimore Ravens, I had a Twitter exchange with a critic of coach Mike Tomlin. As proof of Tomlin’s ineffectiveness, that person cited the coach’s 1-4 record against the New England Patriots. I immediately wondered about that: I know the Steelers won a home game between the two in 2011, and of course there was the 2008 game in which James Harrison single-handedly wrecked the Pats’ offense.

When I pointed out the discrepancy, I was reminded: Brady did not play in the 2008 game. Well, of course he did not because of his season-ending knee injury. However, Roethlisberger did not appear in their game at Heinz Field last October because of a short-term knee injury, and star back Le’Veon Bell did not finish the first quarter of the subsequent AFC title game because of a hamstring issue.

The Patriots are too great to need every conversation about them to be gerrymandered in their favor.

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New England has, with Brady in the lineup, been more successful against teams whose most powerful pass rush threats come from wide angles (like the Steelers’ linebackers in their 3-4 defense) than up the middle (like Miami on Monday with Ndamukong Suh in his face). He also has been more effective picking apart zone defense, which has been the Steelers’ primary coverage scheme throughout the past two decades.

Those are two issues the Steelers will have to manage, along with their customary overreliance on running plays in the mistaken belief that will “keep Brady off the field.” Last week, the Steelers threw 66 passes and ran it 16 times; they held the ball nearly eight minutes longer than Baltimore.

There are reasons the Patriots have won six of the eight games between the two since Tomlin became the Steelers coach. But it’s more rational to focus on those than to aggrandize the difference between the two franchises.

 “It’s good to be in the kitchen,” Tomlin said during his press conference this week. “The kitchen’s in Pittsburgh, Pa., this week in the National Football League.

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