PITTSBURGH --- Mike Tomlin started embracing the "elephant" s on November 27.
Foreplay with the pachyderm can finally cease. The Patriots and Steelers get after it this afternoon. This is the Game of the Year in the AFC. Maybe the NFL.
While Tomlin started hyping the Patriots game 21 days ago, the Patriots didn’t breathe a word about it until this week. And that only came after a Monday night loss in Miami that raised the stakes for this game into a do-or-die for the Patriots in terms of getting the No. 1 seed.
PATRIOTS VS. STEELERS
That whiff of vulnerability that descends after every Patriots loss was in the air this week. Segments of the fanbase react like the worst kinds of hypochondriacs -- perfectly fit but thinking every day that every twinge means an aneurysm is near.
But on Saturday, the 40-year-old quarterback did for New England what he’s been doing since 2001. Put his hand on its shoulder and said, “LFG.”
Thank God for Tomlin. As much as we lampooned his giddy embrace of this matchup, he got the hype train out of the station and the tub-thumping since has made this the most anticipated Patriots game since February.
While we’re at it, thank God for the Steelers. For Big Sloppy Ben, for Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and the detestable James Harrison. Without them, the Patriots would be completely without a foil in this league.
Think about it. The NFL is Rex-less. Peyton’s long gone, the Colts are dead, the Broncos are also dead, the Ravens are washed, Eli’s on his last legs for a two-win team.
The Steelers are the only ones out there, picking up a rock and fitting it in a slingshot for the rest of the conference, the rest of the league.
Take it a little further: Thank God for the Steelers as an organization. They serve as an AFC measuring stick for the Patriots. They won back-to-back Super Bowls twice in the 1970s and have won six Lombardis overall. While there’s no arguing which franchise has been better since the 1990s, you can have a spirited talk about whether the Patriots have yet supplanted the Steelers in overall historical resume. You want 45 years of really good with spikes of being the best, as Pittsburgh’s had? Or 40 years of not-so-good with spikes of real good and then a 17-year stretch like no team’s ever had?
These Steelers and Patriots have nothing in common when it comes to the way they do things. The coaches are polar opposites. The quarterbacks are nothing alike. The Steelers defense flies around with the same danger and disorganization of a wasp attack. Playing the Patriots defense is like punching a snowbank for three hours. Everything about the Patriots offense is based on timing and precision. The Steelers have an air of winging it when they have the ball, whether it’s Bell hanging out in the backfield after the snap until a crease opens or Roethlisberger waiting to restart a play while Brown skips through the opposing secondary.
The Steelers always talk a big game. The Patriots say next to nothing.
As consumers, we all love the talking and the hype because it ratchets up the drama. But as football observers based in New England, we’ve come to believe that talking beforehand is like giving your own eulogy.
But a lot of what Mike Tomlin said you can agree with even if you’re only on your couch today. You will remember this game, as opposed to the succession of beatdowns over the procession of also-rans the Patriots seasons sometimes become.
"It's good to be in the kitchen,” said Tomlin this week. “The kitchen's in Pittsburgh, PA, this week in the National Football League, and at Heinz Field. That's where you want to be in the middle of December. We don't take it for granted."
And neither should we.