Preview: All eyes on Pittsburgh as Patriots visit Steelers with AFC on the line
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The soul searching began the moment the Pittsburgh Steelers walked off the field last January at snowy Foxborough following painful three hours watching Tom Brady and the New England Patriots toy with them in a one-sided 36-17 victory in the AFC title game that didn't even feel that close.
While the Patriots moved on to the Super Bowl and ultimately another championship parade through Boston, the Steelers lurched into an offseason wondering what it was going to take to end nearly two decades of torment at the hands Brady, Bill Belichick and New England's seemingly endless string of role players turned difference makers.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger openly pondered retirement while simultaneously challenging the front office to upgrade the talent around him.
Coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler set about revamping a secondary that looked confused and overmatched as Brady picked it apart.
Roethlisberger opted to return for a 14th season. Pittsburgh grabbed wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round of the draft and welcomed Martavis Bryant back from a year-long suspension and signed two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden in August with an eye specifically on New England.
A chance to see how far the Steelers have come over the past 11 months -- and how far they may still have to go -- arrives Sunday when the AFC North champions host the Patriots (10-3).
And while Roethlisberger tries to downplay the importance, Tomlin does not.
"It's better to be in big games than ones that nobody is watching," Tomlin said. "We better be appreciative of this spot and not resist it in any way, but embrace it because this is what we've been fighting for since March."
Or, you know, way before that.
The Steelers (11-2) haven't lost since Oct. 1 but have beaten Brady just twice in 17 years and only once since 2004, a 25-17 victory in 2011 that Roethlisberger jokingly admits he barely remembers. Maybe that's because the sting of New England's dominance remains so fresh.
The defending Super Bowl champions have won the past four meetings by an average of 15 points. And while New England's early season defensive hiccups resurfaced in a 27-20 setback to Miami on Monday night that ended an eight-game winning streak, the Patriots rarely let the failures of one week carry over into the next. They are 40-11 following a loss since Brady took over in 2001.
If anything, getting pushed around by the Dolphins provided New England with a bit of a reality check. Another setback and their path through the postseason could include at least one game on the road.
Not that they're ready to think that far ahead just yet.
That's really not their thing.
"It's just if we worry about the playoffs, we'll go down there and we'll get killed, honestly," New England defensive back Devin McCourty said. "This is too good of a football team to worry about anything else that surrounds the game, the implications."
Some things to look for as New England tries to clinch a ninth straight AFC East title while Pittsburgh attempts to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
GRONK'S BACK, BRITT ARRIVES: Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the loss in Miami while serving a one-game suspension for elbowing Buffalo's Tre'Davious White. Gronkowski, who went to high school in the Pittsburgh suburbs, has been a nightmare matchup for the Steelers. Gronkowski is averaging 99 yards receiving and has scored eight touchdowns in five games against Pittsburgh. He won't be the only downfield field threat in the lineup. The Patriots signed Kenny Britt this week from Cleveland. The 6-foot-3 Britt is averaging 15.6 yards per catch during his career.
FULL STRENGTH: Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell carried the Steelers to the AFC title game only to spend the majority of the game on the sideline with a groin injury that ended up requiring offseason surgery. Bell is healthy this time around. He leads the NFL in yards rushing (1,105 yards) and touches (363) but is hardly the only option at Roethlisberger's disposal. Antonio Brown is one reception away from becoming the first player in league history with five straight 100-catch seasons and Smith-Schuster and Bryant provide legitimate downfield threats.
"Just more weapons, right down the line," Belichick said. "They're all explosive players. Roethlisberger can use all of them."
BRADY'S BUNCH: Brady remains at the top of his game even on the other side of 40 and appears on his way to a third Most Valuable Player award. The future Hall of Famer seems to save his best for Pittsburgh. Brady has thrown 24 touchdowns against three interceptions against the Steelers. The most recent Pittsburgh player to pick him off? Chris Hope in 2005.
REPLACING RYAN: Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier remains in the hospital recovering from spinal stabilization surgery, his season and perhaps his career over. Pittsburgh's defense struggled in its first game without him last week, giving up 38 points to Baltimore. Tomlin will continue to mix and match at Shazier's spot. He shuttled between Arthur Moats and Sean Spence versus the Ravens, though L.J. Fort could also get some more time going forward.
"Shay is a special guy with a lot of talent," Tomlin said. "Not only physically but mentally and from a leadership standpoint communication. Just not a realistic discussion to talk about one guy replacing him."