If the Patriots get beat Sunday, detractors won’t just have the satisfaction of seeing Bill Belichick lose. They’ll suddenly have an argument that his reign over the AFC hasn’t been all it’s been cracked up to be.
Even the angriest non-New Englander can appreciate that no team has dominated the AFC like the Patriots since 2001. They've won four Super Bowl championships, six conference titles and taken a ridiculous 11 trips to the AFC Championship Games, including an NFL-record active streak of six in a row. They've been peerless.
That's from when Tom Brady started winning. But if you move the timeline up to when Ben Roethlisberger started winning, Sunday’s AFC Championship Game becomes the difference between the Patriots being considered the gold standard and the Steelers entering the conversation.
Starting with Pittsburgh’s first championship of the Roethlisberger era, in 2005, the Steelers have lacked New England's consistency, missing the playoffs four times. But their hardware looks just as good, if not better.
Conference championships: Patriots 3, Steelers 3
Super Bowl championships: Steelers 2, Patriots 1
A Patriots win Sunday and subsequent Super Bowl title would make it five Super Bowl crowns since 2001. It would also effectively kill any Steelers-are-better argument. The teams would be equal in Super Bowl titles since ’05 and the Pats would have one more conference championship while only missing the playoffs once. Pittsburgh would only be able to claim it’s been second-best since it started winning. And, of course, if you move the line back to 2001 . . . no contest.
A Steelers win changes the conversation. They’d have the edge in conference championships and an opportunity to go up two on the Pats in Super Bowl titles since ‘05. It would be a delightful change of narrative for essentially everyone outside of New England dying for an opportunity to say the Pats won three of four and then fell back while another team went on its run.
Of course, that would dismiss the '90s Braves-like affinity the Patriots have had for getting to these games, something the Steelers have not exhibited. Looking at the ancillary achievements since ’05 says it shouldn’t be an argument either way:
Division titles: Patriots 11, Steelers 5
Playoff appearances: Patriots 11, Steelers 7
AFC Championship Game appearances: Patriots 8, Steelers 4
Should the Patriots win Sunday, it would further squash any debate because it would make the Patriots 2-0 in the postseason against Roethlisberger’s Steelers, with both wins coming in the AFC Championship. It would also make New England 3-0 vs. Pittsburgh in conference championship games since 2001.
Are the Patriots playing for their legacy Sunday? Of course not. They cemented that when Malcolm Butler picked Russell Wilson to make them 4-2 in Super Bowls rather than 3-3. A seventh conference championship (and potential fifth Super Bowl championship) would only add to a legacy that will put quite a few people in Canton.
Yet everyone wants to claim they had their era of dominance. If the Steelers find a way to win on Sunday, they -- and every Patriot-hating football fan -- will be able to claim Pittsburgh has been the class of the AFC since 2005. That sounds damn weird.