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Ben Roethlisberger, Dak Prescott energize Steelers-Cowboys rivalry

Not only has America been divided by red states and blue states every four years since 2004, it also has been divided by black and gold on one side and blue and silver on the other side.

The Cowboys visit the Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field. It will be the fourth straight time they’ve met in an election year.

While an electoral map of Cowboys states and Steelers states might be interesting, how much of a rivalry is this?

The Steelers and Cowboys are the only teams who have met in three Super Bowls, but they don’t play each other often enough to breed the bitterness of Steelers-Ravens or Steelers-Bengals. Unlike “Ravens Week” or “Bengals Week” it doesn’t really sound right to say “Cowboys Week.”

The Cowboys might not even make the top-five list of Steelers rivals. The Ravens, Bengals and Browns all make it in one order or another. While an argument can be made for the Cowboys considering their Super Bowl link with the Steelers, the argument is stronger for the Patriots and Broncos because they’re the Steelers’ biggest playoff antagonists in the 21st century.

This will be just the fifth time the Steelers and Cowboys have met in the 20 years since Super Bowl XXX. That novelty is part of the matchup’s appeal.

While there’s no clear and present hatred, the Steelers-Cowboys saga spans generations. Cowboys fans whose hearts were broken as children in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII got some retribution in Super Bowl XXX.

That emotional swing played out over a much shorter time frame the last two times the Steelers and Cowboys played.

In 2008, Deshea Townsend intercepted Tony Romo and returned it 25 yards for the tiebreaking touchdown with 1:40 left in the Steelers’ 20-13 win at Heinz Field. The Steelers improved to 10-3 on their way to winning Super Bowl XLIII. The Cowboys dropped to 8-5 and finished the season 9-7, missing the playoffs for the first time in three years.

In 2012, Brandon Carr intercepted Ben Roethlisberger in overtime and returned the ball to the 1-yard line to set up Dan Bailey‘s game-winning field goal. That 27-24 loss was the second of three straight that would knock the Steelers out of the playoffs. The Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs, either. That was the second of three straight 8-8 seasons for them and the first of two straight 8-8 seasons for the Steelers. These two storied franchises had become linked by mediocrity.

There will be no such link Sunday at Heinz Field. These teams are going in opposite directions. The Cowboys (7-1) have won seven straight and the Steelers (4-4) have lost three straight.

The Cowboys lost their opener. Now they can’t seem to lose behind Dak Prescott, a rookie quarterback who wasn’t supposed to start right away.

Does that sound familiar?

Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 7-1 record at the midpoint of 2004, his rookie season. He replaced an injured Tommy Maddox in Week 2 and won his first 13 starts.

His fourth start was at Dallas in Week 6. The Cowboys led 20-17 and had the ball in Steelers territory with less than three minutes left and the Steelers out of timeouts when James Farrior sacked Vinny Testaverde and forced a fumble. Kimo von Oehlhoffen recovered and returned it to the Cowboys’ 24. Jerome Bettis scored a touchdown with 30 seconds left and the Steelers won 24-20 to improve to 5-1.

Roethlisberger won his first career start at Miami in the remnants of Hurricane Jeanne. Then he led the Steelers past the Bengals and Browns at Pittsburgh. He proved a little bit more by beating Bill Parcells and the Cowboys with a game-winning drive in the final minute. That game was the first of three steps Roethlisberger and the Steelers took toward legitimacy in consecutive weeks. They beat the Patriots in Week 7, ending their record 21-game winning streak, then handed the 7-0 Eagles their first loss in Week 8.

The Steelers went on to finish 15-1 and reached the AFC championship game. They won the Super Bowl the following year and again in 2008.

Prescott’s Roethlisberger-like trajectory after his first half-season turns the 2004 script upside down and therefore creates a symmetry among the four games the Steelers and Cowboys have played in this century.

The 2016 game counteracts the 2004 game the same way the 2012 game counteracts the 2008 game. The Cowboys have a chance to ruin the Steelers’ season with a rookie quarterback the same way Roethlisberger sent them on a downward spiral 12 years ago.

The Steelers can throw all that historic equilibrium out of whack with a win Sunday. If they do, they can hold out a faint hope of a fourth Super Bowl encounter with the Cowboys.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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