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Steelers still can catch Patriots in Team of the Century race

Perhaps you’ve heard once, twice or 100 times this week that the Steelers have never beaten a Tom Brady-led Patriots team at Gillette Stadium.

That’s just what they’ll have to do to win the AFC championship game Sunday and advance to Super Bowl LI.

Steelers wins over the Patriots in any circumstance have been rare since Brady took Drew Bledsoe‘s job in 2001. Steelers fans remember those wins so fondly that they seem more frequent than they really are.

Since Bill Belichick resigned as HC of the NYJ, the Steelers are 3-9 against the Patriots. That’s right, to paraphrase Bob Uecker in “Major League,” just three, um, gosh darn wins.

If there’s any rivalry at all between the Steelers and Patriots, the Patriots own the scoreboard when it comes to regular-season wins, playoff wins and championships.

Let’s just say the last 16 years are a metaphor for a football game. We could call it the Team of the Century Bowl, and the Patriots’ four championships during that time represent a two-touchdown lead over the Steelers’ two championships.

When the Steelers took a historic 55-31 whoopin’ at Gillette Stadium in 2013, it said in this space that the Steelers could forget about ever calling the Patriots rivals in this era. And that was before the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl in 2014.

The Steelers were two years removed from their last playoff berth, began that season 0-4 and dropped to 2-6 on that day in which Shamarko Thomas, yes Shamarko Thomas, actually tried to cover Rob Gronkowski. Brady was 36 at the time. The Steelers seemed so far away from contending for a championship that if it did happen, it would be after Brady retired.

How nice it was of Brady to put off retirement long enough to meet the Steelers one more time in an AFC championship game.

Antonio Brown‘s Facebook Live video wasn’t exactly thought-provoking theater, but it helped demonstrate just how long it’s been since the last time the Steelers and Patriots met with the Super Bowl on the line.

There was no Facebook Live in 2004. Even Facebook was just for college students. There was no Twitter. YouTube was still a month away from being invented when the Patriots beat the Steelers in the 2004 AFC championship game.

Donald Trump was the host of this new show called “The Apprentice” in 2004. That show’s catchphrase, “You’re fired,” is something neither Bill Belichick nor Mike Tomlin is likely to hear from their current employers anytime soon, if ever.

NFL careers began and ended since the last time the Steelers and Patriots met in the playoffs. That includes some damn good careers, like that of Heath Miller.

Miller arrived in 2005 and was part of the Steelers team that won Super Bowl XL. To get there, the Steelers stunned Peyton Manning and the Colts at Indianapolis in the divisional round. The Colts were heavy favorites. They started that year 13-0 and beat the Steelers 26-7 in the regular season. But the Steelers made them feel how the 2001 Steelers felt when the Patriots beat them at Pittsburgh in the 2001 AFC championship game.

No non-Super Bowl Steelers win matches the Immaculate Reception. But that 2005 playoff win over the Colts was sort of a modern-day equivalent. Like the Immaculate Reception, it ended years of frustration and multiple championships were soon to follow.

After the Steelers finally won One for the Thumb in 2005, it seemed inevitable that they would meet the Patriots again in the playoffs with a chance to avenge their 2001 and 2004 AFC championship game losses.

They were one round away from meeting at Gillette Stadium in the 2005 AFC title game, but the Patriots lost at Denver on the Saturday night of the divisional round. Then the Steelers shocked the Colts on Sunday afternoon and went to Denver for the AFC championship game.

The Steelers would have gone to New England to face the unbeaten Patriots in the 2007 divisional playoffs, but couldn’t beat the Jaguars at home in their wild-card game.

In 2010, the Steelers punched their ticket to the conference championship game by beating the Ravens on a Saturday afternoon and it looked like they’d have to go through New England to get to Super Bowl XLV, but the Jets upset the Patriots the next day.

The next year, the Steelers would have visited the Patriots in the divisional round if it weren’t for Tim Tebow. Last year, the Steelers’ ticket to the conference title game in New England was lost when Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled away a victory at Denver.

That’s five missed connections since the last time the Steelers and Patriots hooked up in the playoffs. The Patriots have made it to six straight AFC championship games. The last time they didn’t make it was also the last time the Steelers did make it that far.

While Brady has appeared in his fifth and sixth Super Bowls and won his fourth over the last six years, the Steelers have missed the playoffs twice, gone one-and-done in the playoffs twice and fought the good fight in Denver last year before going down without Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown.

But Brady and the Patriots have left the Gillette Stadium lighthouses on for the Steelers so they could get their act together and find their way back to New England.

The Steelers didn’t have to go through New England to win their 2005 and 2008 championships. The closest they came was a 33-10 win at New England over the Matt Cassel version of the Patriots in 2008. That win ultimately kept the Patriots out of the playoffs, but we all know it comes with an asterisk because it wasn’t against Brady.

That was only the second time the Patriots have missed the playoffs since they started winning Super Bowls. The Steelers, meanwhile, have missed the playoffs five times in those 16 years.

For all the Patriots’ year-to-year superiority over the Steelers, however, if the Steelers somehow win the Super Bowl this year, they’d suddenly be one championship behind them in the Team of the Century Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger, who turns 35 in March, would have more time than Brady to add to his collection of championships.

Then again, Roethlisberger could start to break down and Brady could play until he’s 45, so time is running out on the Steelers. If they pull to within one title of the Patriots in the Team of the Century Bowl, they’d have to attempt an onside kick. And that onside kick would take the form of a legitimate title defense next season. There’s no time left in Roethlisberger’s career for Super Bowl hangover years like they had in 2006 and 2009.

We certainly can’t count on Roethlisberger’s Steelers catching Brady’s Patriots with two more championships, but it seems more possible now than it did in the aftermath of the Speed Limit 55, Steelers 31 game.

A more pragmatic objective for the Steelers on Sunday would be to prevent the Patriots from winning their fifth Super Bowl. If Brady gets his fifth ring the Patriots of the 21st century would one-up the Steelers of the 70s with a fifth championship.

Another championship also would move the Patriots to within one of the Steelers’ all-time record of six.

That’s a scary thought.

To prevent that, the Steelers will have to pull off as big of an upset Sunday as they did at Indianapolis in 2005.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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