The Pittsburgh Steelers face their biggest non-division rival when they visit the New England Patriots Sunday (4:25 p.m., CBS) at Gillette Stadium.
Unlike the Ravens, Bengals and Browns, the Steelers don't play the Patriots every season. But since Bill Belichick has been the Patriots coach, the Steelers have never gone more than two years without playing New England.
That kind of frequency gives a Steelers-Patriots game an Olympics kind of feel.
This is the fifth straight time the Steelers and Patriots will meet between late October and early December. Steelers-Patriots games have become as much a part of late autumn as hayrides, foliage and turkey.
These games are heavyweight fights between NFL powers. In their last 13 matchups, each team has entered the game with at least a .500 record.
Until this year.
The Steelers aren't holding up their end of the deal. They're lugging a 2-5 record into Gillette Stadium, where they have never beaten a Tom Brady-led team, to face the 6-2 Patriots.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the Patriots were just another opponent for the Steelers. Pittsburgh won 12 of the first 16 meetings between the teams.
This is not a ready-made division rivalry, but rather a rivalry that has slowly brewed over the years like a batch of Iron City or Sam Adams. It started to heat up when both teams became relevant in the 1990s. They met in the playoffs for the first time in 1996, but that wasn't much of a game. Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots hammered the Steelers 28-3 at old Foxboro Stadium.
The Steelers returned to that glorified high school field the following December. Pittsburgh defensive end Kevin Henry became the unlikeliest of heroes when he intercepted Bledsoe with just over two minutes left and the Steelers trailing by eight. That set up the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion, and the Steelers went on to win 24-21 in overtime.
That win gave the Steelers home-field advantage when the teams met three weeks later in the Divisional Round of the 1997 AFC playoffs, and Pittsburgh needed every edge it could get to win that game 7-6.
But the real flash point of this rivalry came in 2001. The Patriots, fresh off their Tuck Rule victory over the Oakland Raiders, shocked the Steelers 24-17 at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship Game. That win catapulted the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships in the next four seasons.
At that point, Steeler-Patriot games became a prime-time draw, and the Pittsburgh had to watch New England unveil its first championship banner on Monday Night Football in Week 1 of the 2002 season.
The Steelers still hold a 15-11 all-time edge against the Patriots, but New England has won seven of the last 10, including another AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh in 2004.
So when the 2013 NFL schedule came out in April, this Week 9 game was circled. Another midseason showcase for the league, everyone thought.
But the disheveled Steelers are going into this game like a guy going to a black-tie event wearing a tank top.
Sure, some Steelers teams of recent vintage have looked like they don't belong on the same field with the Patriots. During its perfect 2007 regular season, New England humiliated the visiting Steelers 34-13 after Steelers safety Anthony Smith guaranteed a win over the then-12-0 Patriots. At least Smith's ill-advised words provided a storyline.
The 2013 Steelers can't guarantee a win over the Patriots. They can't guarantee a win over anybody.
Despite Roethlisberger's reverence, Brady has over the past four games completed less than 60 percent of his passes while dealing with an injury to his throwing hand, according to The Boston Globe. He has two touchdown passes and four interceptions during that stretch.
Let's say the Steelers can exploit a weakened Brady and defeat him at New England for the first time. They'd still have to win seven, or at least six, of their last eight games to have a shot at the playoffs.
The best the Steelers can hope for would be to say, "Hey, we beat those guys," when they watch the Patriots in a playoff game on TV.
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