Beating Pats may be wishful thinking
By Ira Kaufman
For the Mirror
Last Sunday I went to Gillette Stadium to see if Ben Roethlisberger, in the twilight of his career, could finally beat the GOAT, Tom Brady.
Nearly two decades ago, the underdog New England Patriots (with Drew Bledsoe replacing an injured Tom Brady) upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game to advance to their first Super Bowl.
Even though since 2002 the Pats, Colts and Steelers have won the most games in the NFL, the Pats have dominated the Steelers winning 11 of the 15 games, including two playoff games.
My love for the black and gold has brought me to 24 stadiums all over the country, but Gillette feels more massive and intimidating than the rest. Whether the game is in September or January, a haze always settles over the stadium like a heavy fog surrounding a medieval castle before battle.
I arrived to Foxborough nearly an hour and a half before the game to an eerie silence. There was no traffic on the roads, there were very few people tailgating in the parking lots, and there were no lines at security.
Upon entering Gillette Stadium, I quickly discovered that the fans were already in their seats anxious to see the team raise their sixth championship banner. With all the pageantry of the Super Bowl halftime show, the Pats had their past stars, like Ty Law and Rob Gronkowski, carry their five Lombardi Trophies with Robert Kraft holding the sixth.
I truly believe the Steelers, who made a complete mess of last season, should have been watching the ceremony for motivation in 2020.
From the colonial soldiers in the end zone firing cannons, to the Bon Jovi “This is Our House” pre-game song to the passionate fan base dressed from head-to-toe in red, white and blue, to the GOAT warming up his arm next to stoic Bill Belichick on the sidelines, the Pats definitely have a decided home-field advantage.
And while Steelers’ fans usually take over stadiums all across the USA, only a handful were able to breach the walls of Gillette on Sunday.
The reverence New England has for Brady and Belichick can only be compared to the feeling Chicago had in the late 1990s had for Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson.
The last time I was in Gillette for the 2017 AFC championship game, the Patriots destroyed Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell 36-17. I felt that the Steelers’ offseason moves — subtracting Brown and Bell distractions and adding players on defense, especially rookie linebacker Devon Bush — gave Pittsburgh a team that would walk confidently into Gillette and beat a Patriot team that lost Gronk.
And with the imminent signing of Antonio Brown, I thought New England appeared desperate.
I was dead wrong. The Steelers lost 33-3 in a game that had a 79-7 Penn State vs. Idaho blowout feel.
I love watching football games live because a TV set only shows the line of scrimmage.
On defense, the Steelers looked sluggish and confused by the Patriots’ multiple offensive formations. Patriots wide receivers ran wide open all over the field with Steelers defenders standing still.
Watching Brady in person, you can see his lightning decision making and pin-point accuracy, as the moment a receiver got open, he delivered the ball to the sweet spot for the receiver to catch it and run for more yards.
On offense, the Steelers’ receivers ran slowly to a spot on the field and just stopped without making any attempt to get open (something AB was great at doing).
In the rare instance where the Steelers completed a pass, Patriots defenders would quickly knock it out of the receiver’s hands. Over and over again, the Steelers abandoned any effort to effectively run the ball, and almost every third-and-long ended in a punt.
From my vantage point, the Patriots looked in Super Bowl form while the Steelers were still in training camp.
The Pats’ defense has vastly improved from last year, and Brady looks better than ever with a masterful offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels utilizing a plethora of elite running backs and wide receivers, especially Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, to move the ball at will against any defense.
With or without Brown, I expect a 17-0 Patriots will be playing at Gillette on Jan. 19, 2020 for the AFC championship.
Forever an eternal Steelers optimist, I still believe Pittsburgh’s defense is one of the best in the league and that Big Ben, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner will thrive behind one of league’s best offensive lines.
With my seasoned frozen tundra Steelers coat, Steelers gloves, winter hats and ear warmers, I am ready for a cold January night rematch at Gillette — eager to see if, finally, Mike Tomlin and Big Ben can conquer the Patriots.
Kaufman is an Altoona native, attorney and traveling sports fan. He hosts a Monday night radio show called “Ira on Sports,” that can be heard on FM95.9 and FM106.9 in West Palm Beach, Florida and is available on Sound Cloud and iTunes under Ira on Sports.