FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's just another game. That's what first-year Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin has been telling his players all week, trying to dial down the expectations and anticipation heading into today's showdown against undefeated New England.
Never mind that the Steelers have a chance to derail the Patriots' designs on joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only NFL teams to finish with an unblemished record.
"Their quest to go undefeated is not our story," Tomlin said. "That's their story. Our story is we play them this week and want to beat them because they're on our schedule."
The fact remains, though, that these Steelers have played spoilers before. Since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger arrived in 2004, Pittsburgh has won seven games against teams that finished as either the No. 1- or No. 2-seeded teams in their conference. That includes ending New England's 21-game winning streak when Roethlisberger was a rookie, then knocking off 7-0 Philadelphia the very next Sunday.
The stakes are even higher today. Pittsburgh (9-3) could clinch the AFC North with a victory, and a loss by Cleveland, which plays at the New York Jets. The Patriots have already locked up their division but can secure a first-round bye with a victory - and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, if Indianapolis were to lose at Baltimore.
New England (12-0), which won its first 10 games by an average of more than 25 points, is coming off consecutive squeakers over Philadelphia and Baltimore. Those were both three-point victories, and revealed a vulnerability against the run, something Pittsburgh does well.
If there's trouble in paradise for the Patriots, Tomlin certainly doesn't see it.
"People are talking about how they appear to be beatable," he said. "The reality is they display their greatness. They find ways to finish games out and win, regardless of how they begin or develop. That speaks to what they're capable of."
The message coming from the Steelers hasn't been entirely universal. Safety Anthony Smith ruffled some of the Patriots last week -- and definitely their fans -- by guaranteeing a Pittsburgh victory and suggesting Cincinnati's receivers are better than New England's trio of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth.
Smith's guarantee notwithstanding, the Steelers who are more seasoned and accomplished -- and better known -- can truly appreciate what the Patriots have done so far. Roethlisberger, for instance, marvels at the play of quarterback Tom Brady, who has a league-leading 41 touchdowns and only five interceptions, and Monday directed his third fourth-quarter, game-winning drive in the last five games.
Before giving up three sacks to Baltimore, the New England offensive line had hermetically sealed the pocket for Brady, limiting teams to 13 sacks in 11 games.
"It seems like Tom's a superhero or something, and one of his powers is a force field around him," Roethlisberger told reporters. "Sometimes he'll just sit back there and no one's around him."
Roethlisberger's not too shabby, either. Numbers-wise, he's enjoying the best season of his career, completing 66.9% of his passes with 25 touchdowns -- already eight more than his previous best -- and a 102.9 rating.
"He's a winner," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. "He wins a lot of games and makes good decisions. Obviously, he's a good passer. He's strong in the pocket, is a hard guy to bring down, and makes good decisions with the ball in critical situations -- third down, red area, and end-of-the-game type situations."
Tomlin says the same thing about Brady. But the coach also doesn't spend much time heaping praise on the opponent or his own team. If he views this as a defining game in the AFC, as many people do, he's not saying so.
Yes, he's 9-3 as a rookie coach. Yes, his quarterback is playing well. Yes, the Steelers have the league's No. 1 defense. But they have another game to play.
"We don't lean much on reputation and resume," Tomlin said. "We understand that every time you walk into stadiums, you have to deliver."
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Ben there, done that
If the Steelers were to beat New England today, it would be the latest Pittsburgh upset in the Ben Roethlisberger era. Since they drafted him with the No. 11 selection in the 2004 draft, the Steelers have won seven games, including postseason, against teams that ended the regular season seeded No. 1 or No. 2 in their conference.
*--* Date Result (Opp. Rec) Playoff spot 10-31-04 Def. New England, 34-20 AFC No. 2 (6-0) 11-7-04 Def. Philadelphia, 27-3 NFC No. 1 (7-0) 12-11-05 Def. Chicago, 21-9 (9-3) NFC No. 2 1-15-06* Def. Indianapolis, 21-18 AFC No. 1 (14-2) 1-22-06* Def. Denver, 34-17 (13-3) AFC No. 2 2-5-06** Def. Seattle, 21-10 (13-3) NFC No. 1 11-12-06 Def. New Orleans, 38-31 NFC No. 2 (6-2) * AFC playoffs; ** Super Bowl XL *--*
Source: Stats LLC