PITTSBURGH — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin meant to say he planned to “educate” his team’s younger players about the franchise’s long-simmering — and largely one-sided — rivalry with New England.
Only, Tomlin didn’t use “educate.” At least, not at first, instead letting forth a Freudian slip that perhaps more accurately describes how the Steelers feel about their longtime nemesis.
“I am going to agitate our guys,” Tomlin said before correcting himself.
No need. Tom Brady has been agitating the Steelers for a decade.
The Patriots quarterback has spent the last 10 years shredding one of the NFL’s proudest defenses, beating Pittsburgh six times in seven meetings heading into Sunday’s showdown at Heinz Field that could be a preview of the AFC championship game.
New England (5-1) is rested after a bye week. The Steelers (5-2) are surging after a sluggish start.
Yet it doesn’t seem to matter how Pittsburgh is playing when the Patriots come to town. Good teams. OK teams. Rebuilding teams. All of them lose to Brady.
Pittsburgh’s only victory over New England with Brady under center came in 2004 when the Steelers ended the Patriots’ NFL record 21-game winning streak.
No biggie. The Patriots returned to Heinz Field three months later and won the AFC championship game en route to their second straight Super Bowl title.
Running backs change. Wide receivers change. Linemen change. Coordinators change. Brady’s mastery over the Steelers does not.
The two-time MVP’s secret is no secret to the Steelers. He takes care of the ball — he’s thrown three interceptions in 255 career attempts against the Steelers — and he doesn’t back down.
“We’ve got to minimize our miscues and be physical and play our game,” Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “I think a lot of people get involved with trying to do too much against them, instead of just doing what you do. So, you have to do what you do and do it well.”
The Steelers will probably have to do it better than that to slow down the NFL’s top offense, a unit led by the former sixth-round pick whose greatest moments in his Hall-of-Fame career have come Pittsburgh’s expense.
Brady was still finding his footing after replacing injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 when he helped the Patriots to an upset victory over the Steelers in the AFC championship game. He threw for just 115 yards in that first meeting before leaving with an ankle injury.
Most times against the Steelers, he has that number by the half.
He’s won four straight against Pittsburgh, averaging 332 yards passing in the process, including a 350-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 39-26 victory here last year.
“I tell you that the times we’ve beaten them, we’ve had to play very, very, very good games, and we have,” Brady said. “I think that’s probably what I am most proud of. Some of our greatest games that we’ve ever played have been against them and that’s just the level of execution.”
Something that rarely changes regardless of who surrounds Brady in the huddle.
“There are certain plays in our offense that I’ve literally run thousands of times,” Brady said. “You make a lot of mistakes over the course of those plays and you learn from them and hopefully you don’t make them again.”
He rarely makes them against the Steelers, who stress they respect Brady but they don’t fear him.
“You can’t go into a game and put the other team on a pedestal or you’re going to play them different or anything like that,” Hampton said. “Who cares? You’ve just got to go out there and play. Sure, they’re a good team, but we’re a good team, too.”
One that finally seems to be rounding into form.
The Steelers have won three straight games to climb into first in the tight AFC North. A rematch with Baltimore — who whipped Pittsburgh 35-7 in the season-opener — looms next week.
It might as well be next year.
“If you’re in this locker room and you’re thinking about Baltimore, you have a problem,” safety Ryan Clark said.
Both teams have tried to downplay the importance of a late-October game, noting there’s still half a season to go. Yet the Steelers know there’s a message just waiting to be sent. Their five wins have come against teams with a combined 8-24 record.
“This is a measuring stick game for us,” defensive end Brett Keisel said.
The same could be said for the Patriots, who needed a late rally to edge Dallas two weeks ago and whose eye-popping numbers have come back to earth — at least by their lofty standards — over the team’s last three games.
New England scored a season-low 20 points against the Cowboys, the third straight game their point total has declined from the previous week. In the Patriots’ lone loss Buffalo picked Brady off four times by disrupting his timing.
A chink in the armor? Not really.
“Let’s be honest, that probably happens once every five years,” Tomlin said. “So we have about four years and nine months before we see that again.”
The Steelers hope they don’t have to wait that long to beat Brady again.
Though Pittsburgh has won two Super Bowls since the Patriots won their third title, they’re well aware Brady has kept them from a chance at grabbing two more Lombardi trophies. If the 2001 and 2004 AFC championship games go the other way, maybe it’s the Steelers and not the Patriots that are crowned the 2000′s “Team of the Decade.”
Hampton and wide receiver Hines Ward are the only Steelers remaining from the 2001 team. Sure, they remember the slow walk back to the locker room after the championship game. They also know it’s ancient history, no education from Tomlin required.
“We definitely want to come back and put on a different showing,” Ward said. “There’s nothing we can do about the past.”