Foxborough, Mass. — There are few things that Bill Belichick respects more than history in the NFL.
And few teams elicit as much praise from the Patriots coach as the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Part of it is the reverence that Belichick holds for the way Steelers founder Art Rooney and his family has operated a franchise that’s remained among the league’s best, winning multiple Super Bowl titles more than 30 years apart. It is a model emulated when Robert Kraft bought the Patriots in 1994 and six years later hired Belichick, who has nurtured a “Patriots Way” that has helped bring four Lombardi trophies to New England.
Those histories will collide when two of the most successful programs of the 2000s meet in Sunday’s AFC championship game.
“They’ve been tough to deal with going all the way back to coach (Chuck) Noll in the ‘70s,” Belichick said. “They were pretty consistently tough to deal with through that entire period of time, which has been all of my years in the league.”
Either New England or Pittsburgh has been a part of nine of the 17 Super Bowls since 2000, winning six championships between them.
“They have a lot of wins over there,” said Patriots receiver Julian Edelman. “It’s nothing but respect for the Steelers. I went to school in Steelers Country over in Kent State. Half the school was in a Steelers jersey. I’ve known about that whole faithful for a while now.”
But for all their individual successes, the teams have met only four times in the playoffs. The Patriots have won three of those matchups, including the last two in the AFC title games in 2005 and 2002 at Heinz Field. Both times New England went on the win the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been a part of both of the Steelers’ recent championships, but the 34-year-old’s only playoff meeting with the Patriots was the 2005 loss when he was a rookie.
He has spoken often about his respect for the Patriots and Tom Brady , which included him requesting a jersey from Brady prior to Pittsburgh’s loss to New England back in October . Big Ben missed that game because of knee surgery. This is the latest opportunity to play in “the lion’s den,” he said.
“They are the best in the world,” Roethlisberger said. “They are the gold standard, if you will. So you want to have that opportunity to go up to play the best.”
Brady is 6-2 in head-to-head matchups with Roethlisberger, but Roethlisberger didn’t play in the Patriots’ Week 7 win in Pittsburgh because he was recovering from surgery on his left knee.
Including the two playoff wins, Brady is 9-2 overall against Pittsburgh, including a 4-0 record at home . Roethlisberger is 3-6 all-time against New England.
History aside, Brady said he is expecting to get the best from Pittsburgh, which started the season 4-5 but has won its last nine.
“(Roethlisberger’s) been a leader for that team for a long time and they’ve won a lot of games with him behind the center,” Brady said. “It’s going to be a great game.”
Here are some things to watch for in Sunday’s game:
Most of the early part of the week was consumed by the fallout from video of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin using an expletive to describe the Patriots during a postgame speech to his team following its divisional-round win over Kansas City. Unbeknownst to Tomlin, the speech was aired on a social media livestream by receiver Antonio Brown.
But Patriots special teams captain Matt Slater said it wouldn’t provide any extra motivation.
“We’re playing in the AFC championship game. If you can’t get motivated to play in this game, then you’re in the wrong sport,” he said.
Red means stop
Pittsburgh’s high-octane offense ran into some serious hiccups in the divisional round against Kansas City. Seven trips inside the Chiefs’ 30 — and four inside the 20 — resulted in no touchdowns, an interception and an NFL playoff record of six field goals from Chris Boswell.
“We just didn’t execute in critical downs,” Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “We had opportunities to make plays in that game. A couple that probably would have been touchdowns, we didn’t make. We were able to come out on top.”
Bud not so light
Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree might be the team’s lucky charm. Pittsburgh hasn’t lost since Dupree recovered from surgery to repair a sports hernia. The team’s first-round pick in 2015 has five sacks in nine games while playing opposite veteran James Harrison.
Though Dupree typically lines up wide of the tight end, he’s more than happy to try and go up the middle in an effort to get in Brady’s face, something Houston did with limited success last week.
“You’ve got to do anything you can to try and get in his face,” Dupree said.
Plan B, C & D
Pittsburgh reached the title game despite missing wide receivers Martavis Bryant (suspended) the entire season and Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey for long stretches because of injury. In their place are the likes of seventh-round pick Demarcus Ayers, practice squad graduates Xavier Grimble and Cobi Hamilton, as well as undrafted free agent Eli Rogers.
“So, we have a lot of guys that I think can make plays for us, outside of the usual suspects,” Roethlisberger said. “Even if it is one or two big plays a game, sometimes that can be enough, if the play is made at the right time.”