The last time the Patriots faced the Steelers with both teams coming off losses, Bill Parcells was coaching rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe in New England in 1993.
That’s the backdrop for Sunday’s showdown in Pittsburgh after the Patriots (9-4) lost in epic fashion on the Miami Miracle and the Steelers (7-5-1) booted one away in Oakland for their third straight loss.
The circumstances are unusual, and the playoff implications are enormous. The Steelers have the biggest potential swing of making the playoffs and winning their division of any team this week, while the Patriots have the biggest potential swing of getting a first-round bye, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Major playoff implications
Head to head
The Steelers have home-field advantage, but the Patriots have Tom Brady, and history suggests having No. 12 is the true advantage.
Brady has dominated Ben Roethlisberger in 10 head-to-head games, including the playoffs.
"We hear that a lot, you guys haven't had a lot of success against Brady and Belichick," Roethlisberger said on 93.7 The Fan. "Well, who has? Not a lot of people have. That's why they've won so many championships and are pretty good."
The last time Roethlisberger beat Brady head-to-head was Week 8 of 2011.
"It's a new year," Roethlisberger added. "Tom is still the best of all time, and Belichick might be, too."
How they've fared this season
Mike Reiss, ESPN Patriots reporter: It hasn’t been an MVP-type season for Brady, who won the award in 2017, but he has still been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL this season.
Along the way, the 41-year-old has broken several records, most recently passing Peyton Manning for the most touchdown passes in league history (playoffs included), with 582. Another milestone, albeit of the playful variety, came when he finally reached 1,000 rushing yards Dec. 2 against the Vikings.
Some of Brady’s early struggles this season were more a result of factors around him, as he was without top target Julian Edelman for the first quarter of the season as Edelman served a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy. Also, tight end Rob Gronkowski has been in and out of the lineup, while receiver Josh Gordon was acquired in mid-September and had been forced to learn the team’s system on the fly.
Brady has also battled through a knee injury of late, but he has still shown flashes of brilliance.
Jeremy Fowler, ESPN Steelers reporter: Despite some erratic moments and the Steelers’ three-game losing streak, Roethlisberger is pacing for his most prolific passing season of his 15-year career.
Roethlisberger has never had a 5,000-yard season, a milestone he said he’d appreciate. At 4,227 yards through 13 games, second only to Patrick Mahomes, Roethlisberger should easily surpass that number. His 28 passing touchdowns position him well to eclipse his career high of 32.
The one thing holding Roethlisberger back is turnovers, tying for second-most in the NFL with 13 interceptions, four of which have come in the red zone. But the Steelers will live with the occasional pick because, as tight end Vance McDonald says, the quarterback keeps Pittsburgh in every game because he takes chances.
Big Ben has kept the offense humming despite the loss of Le’Veon Bell, and for the final stretch, the Steelers will ask him to redirect their reeling season.
Brady is considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, so comparing him to any other quarterback would appear lopsided. Roethlisberger is no exception, although his numbers also will put him in the Hall of Fame one day.
It's great vs. great, and both will need to be on top of their games Sunday to improve their playoff positioning.
Brady is a combined 26-8 against potential Hall of Fame contemporaries in the AFC: Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers (7-0) and Roethlisberger.
Brady's dominance of Roethlisberger could eventually be the most dominant head-to-head matchup between Hall of Fame quarterbacks in history. There have been 20 Hall-of-Fame quarterback duos in the Super Bowl era that have met at least five times, including the playoffs. Only three feature one QB with an .800 or better win percentage vs. the other, according to ESPN Stats & Info.