Reviewing the rivalry
JJ Feigenbaum is a freshman at Wesleyan and an Andover, MA native. He has followed the Patriots for the entire 18 years of his life. Fanaticism runs in the blood, as his father, Mark Feigenbaum, was Patriots Fan of the Year in 1996. Ladies beware; he plans to name his first-born child, son or daughter, Belichick.
The Steelers. Once again it comes down to those Yellow and Black warriors from the Steel City. They really are warriors, though I hate to admit it. I mean, I really hate to admit it. I came of age as a Patriots fan with Bledsoe, Ben Coates and Big Play Willie Clay, under the reign of the Tuna. It was really an amazing transformation; the Patriots were no good and had players I had never heard of and then in one swoop Robert Kraft had a great coach, a number one quarterback and the makings of a great team. Yet, the Steelers seemed to always be there as a nemesis, powered by players I loved to hate, from Kordell Stewart to the Bus, to Hines Ward and Plexi-glass Burress.
The Pats, in their brand new royal blue jerseys, had a few stumbles in Bledsoes first season, falling to 5-11 and looked to be starting out the same way in 1994, dropping consecutive games to the Dolphins and Bills and starting out the season 3-6. But then came a huge win over the Vikings at Foxborough Stadium, one of the first games I can remember attending. Down huge going into halftime, Bledsoe and Pats came out firing in the third quarter and the Patriots threw their way to a season-changing, really a franchise-changing win, 26-20. Starting with the Vikings game, the Pats rolled off a seven-game winning streak leading them to 10-6 and their first playoff berth since, well, the year I was born. Im young, but that was still a long time to be an NFL doormat. Even though they dropped the game to the Belichick-led Browns it was a major moment in Pats history, as well as the history of my own fandom.
From then on, the Pats were a team on the upswing and two years later they reached the Super Bowl. Their run to the Super Bowl included a very satisfying win over the Steelers in a foggy, rainy Foxborough in the divisional round.
But the story, at that point, did not have a happy ending. Desmond Howard, Brett Farve and the late Reggie White had their way with the Pats on all sides of the ball. Parcells abandoned the team, pretty much before Super Bowl XXXI even started. Before you could say Vinatieri, Tuna was in New York and Pete Carroll was coaching the Patriots. The 1997 season wasnt awful, as the Pats went 10-6, avoided a Super Bowl hangover and made the playoffs, but it wasnt what it was supposed to be at all. The Pats also lost twice in the final month to the Steelers, by a field goal in the home finale and by a point in the Divisional round in Pittsburgh, in a game that included a phantom facemask call on Ted Johnson that I still remember to this day and Kordell Stewart tiptoeing down the sideline for the only score of the day in the second quarter. And by tiptoeing I mean blatantly running down the sideline out of bounds. Am I bitter? You bet. The next few years were no kinder to the Pats, but they did exact some measure of revenge the next season, as they pounded a 7-9 Steeler team in Pittsburgh, 23-9. The Pats, however, were not much better, going 9-7 and falling in the first round of the playoffs.
The entire Pats-Steelers rivalry was painful. As the Patriots and their fans endured Bill Parcells abandoning the team and the miserable management of the insufferably jacked and pumped Pete Carroll, Bill Cowher stood strong as the Steelers coach, unable to win the big game or not, he was there, now the longest tenured coach in the NFL with 13 seasons in Pittsburgh. Curtis Martin came and left, while Jerome Bettis rumbled to records. Drew Bledsoe threw inopportune interceptions and mismanaged game after game and Kordell Stewart well every rivalry has to have some parallels.
Things turned around though, as every Pats fan knows. Belichick, Brady and the rest arrived in New England. In 2001, the Pats were on their way back to the Super Bowl. And there were the Steelers, standing in their way. Because, as the Pats had played their way to an 11-5 record, including six straight wins, the Steelers had built themselves the best record in the AFC, going 13-3 and clinching home field advantage. The Steelers had lost only one home game that season, to the Ravens, a loss they rectified in the divisional round with a 27-10 pounding of Baltimore. For all intents and purposes, the Steelers were headed to Super Bowl XXXVI, they had their hotels booked and had probably already begun scouting the Rams and Eagles. The pundits agreed and nobody gave the Pats a chance. When Brady left the game in the second quarter, the Pats were dead and buried. A rejuvenated Drew Bledsoe, so jacked and pumped it probably brought a tear to Pete Carrolls eye, and a great team effort ultimately pushed the Pats past the Steelers to the big game, and again, we all know what happened there. It was amazing, magical and probably the second greatest month of my life, tuck rule to Lombardi trophy.
But you wouldnt know that from the comments the Steelers made after the game. Kordell Stewart quipped that sometimes the best team doesnt always win and that the Steelers were in fact the better team in that game. You know what, Kordell? It doesnt even matter, because if the worse team is the one heading to the Super Bowl, Id rather root for them. Hines Ward, meanwhile, after the season, decided that his basically went to the Super Bowl, apparently discounting the large shiny object in the Patriots trophy case. It got to me, just like all the questions of the Pats last week leading to their game with the Colts. My team had done something incredible, no one had any right to discount, and yet, they did just that. A spanking in the opening week of the season courtesy of the defending champs shut the Steelers up but hardly served to calm my hatred. Watching the Bus wheels fall off, Stewart head to the bench, Cowhers seat grow hotter and hotter, it all almost made up for the Pats 9-7 season. I forgot about the 6-10 Tommy Maddox led team last year, but who could care about anything else as the Pats stormed to their second Super Bowl victory.
And yet, here they are again, those Steelers. Coming off a miserable 6-10 year, made all the worse by the fact that it followed a pair of playoff years in 2001 and 2002, the Steelers lost their starting quarterback in the second game of the year, handing over the reigns to an unproven rookie. We all know what happened then. Their play this year doesnt make me hate them any less, in fact Curt Schilling wearing the Rothlisberger jersey only enrages me more and I certainly someone other than the Sox ace to take it out on, but it does make me respect them. Like the Pats in 2001, the Steelers came out of nowhere and are on the verge of the Super Bowl. I remember how upsetting their arrogance was then and of course what happened to those cocky Steelers. Which is why, although I am confident in the Patriots, I know it will be a tough game between two extremely tough teams. Love the Pats and hate the Steelers with as much fervor as I do, I have to respect the men from Pittsburgh. I just hope the Patriots beat the crap out of them. It wouldnt be all bad in Pittsburgh though. They could still take solace in being the better team, because as Kordell taught us, the best team doesnt always win. Right.