Posted Jan 25th 2009 4:00 PM by Ryan Wilson (author feed)

Whatever happens Sunday, the Patriots will undoubtedly be the team to beat come September -- at least according to the predictably sycophantic media who assume that, as long as Bill Belichick is breathing and Tom Brady is walking, New England is winning.

There are still concerns about Brady's reconstructed left knee, but if he's fully operational by training camp, the prognosticating bobbleheads should take great comfort in anointing the Patriots as favorites to win their fourth Super Bowl this decade. It's the same banal "analysis" that fans have been beaten about the head with since New England won its last championship four years ago.

In that time, the Steelers, Colts, and Giants have also earned rings. And if Pittsburgh defeats Arizona seven days from now, it will have two titles since 2005, a span in which New England has been shutout. It's a key footnote often overlooked when talking up the Patriots at the expense of everybody else, but it shouldn't diminish what the Steelers have accomplished -- or that they're arguably the best team in the league's over the last five years.

The Patriots have come close to adding to their championship trophy collection, but have fallen short each time since 2004. And although most agree that the Steelers are one of the NFL's most consistent teams, they're never mentioned in the same breath as the Patriots. Certainly, New England's three Super Bowl victories in four years to start the decade has virtually everything to do with that. But the playing field has, for various reasons, been leveled recently.

From 2000-04, both Pittsburgh and New England averaged 10.6 wins per season; the Steelers never made it out of the conference championship (losing twice), while the Patriots won three titles. In the last four years, however, the Pats have averaged 12.25 wins a season; the Steelers: 10.25.

There are several explanations for the win-total discrepancy since 2005. First, Brady has evolved into one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, and when you put him in an offense with Randy Moss and Wes Welker scoring records are getting broken. More than that, though, Brady has benefited from sound game plans and great offensive coordinators. (Because, really, New England had no business winning 12 games in 2006 with the likes of Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell catching the bulk of Brady's passes.)

To a lesser degree, Ben Roethlisberer helmetlessly head-butting cement can also be attributed to the win-total difference between the two teams. The then-second year quarterback was coming off a remarkable postseason (save the forgettable Super Bowl appearance) and was primed to take more control of the offense. Instead, his face was rearranged and his brains were scrambled on a Pittsburgh street, and he subsequently struggled through an 8-8 campaign.

(Patriots fans could just as easily point to Brady going down in September as evidence that the 2008 club could've been even better than the '07 version. Fair point, especially when you consider that Cassel, who last started a football game in high school, led New England to an 11-5 record.)

There's also this: the Steelers' brutal schedule and Spygate. Frankly, neither makes a compelling case for why New England won more often than Pittsburgh the last four years, chiefly because both teams played similarly tough schedules over that period, and because it's still not clear that the Patriots were doing anything other teams weren't also doing. They just got caught. (Either way, in the spirit of completeness, I've included it here.)

Then there's the great equalizer: luck. Good luck, some might say, got the Patriots to their first Super Bowl this century. Bad luck, in various manifestations, have kept them from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy since 2004. Last September, Brady's injury immediately changed the playoff landscape in the AFC. (Later losing Adalius Thomas and Laurence Maroney didn't help, either.)

Going back, Super Bowl parade preparations were scrapped after a controversial call on a Champ Bailey pick-six in the '05 playoffs. A year later, a rare late-game Brady miscue sealed New England's fate in Indy. Then Super Bowl XLII happened. At some point, great teams lose to good ones. For the Patriots, it's suddenly happening with some frequency.

Regular season win totals are nice, but ultimately, the idea is to stock the trophy case with championships. And if Pittsburgh can win their second title in four years (and their sixth in franchise history), they would be the most successful team in the league over the last half-decade. Even if that fact is obscured by all the Patriots obsequiousness we'll invariably be subjected to in the run up to the 2009 season.