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Pittsburgh's Giant Step Back: Spygate and Steeler Nation's Embarrassing Act of Denial

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 23:  Rodney Harrison #37 of the New England Patriots returns an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter of the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on January 23, 2005 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images
Drew BonifantAnalyst IIJanuary 5, 2017

We had made progress. We had become enlightened.

Well, leave it to Steeler Nation to drag us back.

I'm using the term "Steeler Nation" because I don't mean to single out the fans. I'm trying to include everyone who follows the Pittsburgh Steelersprofessionally and unprofessionally.

The issue is Spygate. The hot-button topic of 2007 was just that: a trendy subject three years ago. Talk, rumors and accusations have died down and pretty much out since then, save for a few revivals to insult Patriots fans in everyday banter.

It still follows the team to a degree. A sign at Heinz Field for last Sunday's Steelers-Patriots matchup read "Six rings, no cheatin," according to the Boston Globe's Shalize Manza Young. Whatever. That's from the fans, and is to be expected.

What we got from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Joe Starkey, however, was not.

Starkey felt like tackling a topic that is no longer relevant in serious football circles, mentioning that it was New England's first trip to Heinz Field since the controversy erupted in September of 2007. He reminded readers that the Steelers can feel robbed of Super Bowl berths, and that the fans can still look at the Patriots as thieves, crooks and swindlers.

It's a reach that smacks of desperation and sounds hollow. And it represents an irrational group that simply can't accept reality.

The truth is that the Patriots were a better team than the Steelers both times they played in the playoffs. Not both years, but both games.

The 2001 Patriots were not as good as the Steelers. The 2004 Patriots, however, were better than Pittsburgh that year. On both occasions, however, New England took the field and outplayed the Steelers on the latter's home field. And "cheating" had nothing to do with it.

As Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti pointed out on the daily Felger and Mazz show, the 2001 game came down to special teams. New England scored on a punt return and a blocked field goal in a seven-point win. The offense struggled to move the ball during the game. Stealing defensive signals, if it happened, had no effect.

A similar performance by the Miami Dolphins this season got a coordinator fired. Blame for such an effort belongs on the coordinator, not the opponent.

In the 2004 AFC Championship Game, New England faced a Pittsburgh team that had thumped it during the regular season, and returned the favor. The Patriots did use footage of the Steelers for that game, but it was game film.

The Patriots beat the Ravens last year at home, then got crushed by the same Baltimore team—at home—in the playoffs. Same principle. The Patriots were better in 2004, the Ravens were better last year.

And if Pittsburgh fans are still adamant that there are questionable victories in the books, they can look at themselves.

The Steelers had championship teams in 2005 and 2008 that were completely legitimate. The 2005 squad was a resilient group that rose from a sixth seed to win four playoff games, including two in difficult places to play (Indianapolis and Denver). The 2008 team was one of the decade's best defensive teams.

But those titles don't go without skepticism. Super Bowl XL is universally considered to be one of the worst officiated games of recent memory. The Steelers in 2008 won a title in which they didn't have to go against their nemesis, Tom Brady. I won't even go into the steroid accusations surrounding the Steelers teams of the 1970s.

I'm not suggesting the Steelers' titles are tainted. They went head-to-head with quality opponents each time and came out on top. They deserve their accolades.

But if Pittsburgh fans want to cry foul, there's plenty of ammunition for the other side.

Starkey's point represents a Pittsburgh culture that just doesn't want to believe the facts. So it doesn't. The Steelers can't lose a Super Bowl. It must have been taken from them. The evidence suggests otherwise. Doesn't matter.

New England won twice in Pittsburgh in the playoffs. The Steelers, on the other hand, have never beaten the Patriots in the postseason. The Steelers lost home AFC Championship Games in 1995, 1997, 2001 and 2004.

Those are facts. Unpleasant ones. So the Steeler culture is to hide from them.

Spygate's a dead issue. Sorry to have brought it up.

But Steeler Nation, you left me no choice.

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