Sunday night around 8 p.m. I was in the Gillette Stadium press box mining my brain for an angle that would make the Patriots’ 18-point, never-in-doubt win over Miami seem a little bit interesting.
I then heard Phil Perry from down the row mention something about “embracing elephants.”
To each his own, right? But I’m nothing if not polite so I said, “Say, Phil. . . come again?”
Phil then related that his Twitter feed was ablaze. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was running through the lion’s cage with a meat suit. During NBC’s Sunday Night Football pregame, Tomlin was speaking freely about playing the Patriots on December 16 and the Super Bowl and who would have home-field advantage and such.
I chortled. We all chortled. We do that here. After 18 seasons bearing witness to the Patriots' operating procedures under Bill Belichick, chortling at the rest of the NFL is by now as much a part of our fabric as Dunkin’ Donuts and sarcasm.
- Perry: In one interview, Tomlin breaks every rule in Belichick's book
- Esiason: Tomlin looking ahead to Pats is ridiculous
This run of success has gone on longer than anyone could have expected. The karma that awaits all us chortlers, we’ll deal with next decade. Until then, the Book of Belichick is gospel and the idea of a veteran head coach looking weeks ahead is a direct violation of Day One teachings.
So I clicked and searched to find what the hell Tomlin said.
He said this: “Man, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room. It’s going to be fireworks.”
Then he said this: “[The Dec. 16 meeting between the Patriots and Steelers in Pittsburgh] is probably going to be part one, and that’s going to be a big game. But probably, if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second one" -- the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 21 -- "is really going to be big. And what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, and it’s going to determine the location of the second one.”
Then he also said this: “Oh, we can win it all. We should win it all. I sense that about the group. In terms of talent, in terms of having enough competition, depth, I think we check all those boxes. But, checking the boxes doesn’t run the race.”
Anyone -- whether they be fan or media -- is right now thankful for the early hype, because the Patriots' 2017 season has turned into what it often does: A succession of floggings administered to teams with overmatched quarterbacks and beleaguered head coaches trying to keep undisciplined teams within two touchdowns of New England. It’s sizzle-free weeks leading up to drama-free football on Sundays. The Patriots can give away a touchdown -- as they did on Sunday to Miami -- and still win by 18.
There’s not much to analyze and handwring about, though God knows people still try.
But Tomlin’s comments are an Olympic-sized pool plopped in the middle of this desert of boring excellence.
What’s interesting to me isn’t that Tomlin believes the Steelers and Patriots are the two best teams in the AFC. Everybody already knew that. It’s that he and his Steelers can maintain such impressive self-esteem despite the fact the Patriots routinely bludgeon Pittsburgh.
The Steelers have lost their last four games to the Patriots and five of their past six. Pittsburgh is 3-10 against New England since Belichick took over and the most recent meeting -- last year’s AFC Championship Game -- found the Patriots ahead 33-9 after three quarters on their way to a 36-17 win.
The Steelers have won six straight, but two of their last three wins were life-and-death struggles with a Colts team quarterbacked by Jacoby Brissett and a Packers team with Brett Hundley. The Steelers still have games against Baltimore and Cincinnati before they play New England.
If the Steelers have their hands full with those teams, it seems a little whacked to realize they are wishing away the days between now and when they get to see Tom Brady.
But Pittsburgh’s been talking about and planning for the Patriots practically since they left Foxboro last January.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler -- who’s seen Brady throw for almost 900 yards and nine touchdowns (with no picks) against the Steelers since 2015 -- told anyone who’d listen back in August that the Steelers were going to play more man-to-man in 2017 to get ready for Brady.
“We’re emphasizing [man coverage] more this year in training camp,” Butler said in August. “We can’t always play zone, especially against people like the Patriots. You look at the people that beat the Patriots in the past, a lot of them have played man-to-man, I think the last time we beat them . . . we were playing a lot of man-to-man coverage.”
Also from August: “With Tom Brady, you can’t let him see the same defense too much during the game. Because if he does, then he’s not pulling the ball down, and he’s letting the ball go, the timing is all perfect, and he’ll eat you up. You’ve got to make him pull the ball down a little bit -- make him freeze where he’s not real decisive of where he’s going to go with the ball.”
Butler’s been with the Steelers since 2003. The last time Pittsburgh beat New England was 2011. The last time they beat a Brady-led offense before that was in 2004.
If you’re Pittsburgh, making the Patriots your white whale makes perfect sense. You know they will be where they’ve always been as long as Brady is their quarterback and Belichick is their coach -- at the top of the AFC heap.
But to lust openly for the beating that’s annually handed to your team? To slam through the barroom doors looking for a fight that always leaves you bloodied and on your back? That takes a special kind of something.
Whatever it is, I’m just glad that Tomlin and the Steelers have it.