Since Tom Brady became an NFL starter in 2001, the AFC’s predictability has been rivaled in professional sports only by LeBron James. Not much changes from year to year, whether it’s King James leading his team to the NBA Finals, or the AFC’s Super Bowl representative being helmed one of three quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger.
The year is now 2020, and even in the most dystopian of times, the plot appears to have remained the same. Sure, Patrick Mahomes is now in the discussion as the cream of the crop among QBs. Back in February, when America was still normal, Mahomes became just the third QB not mentioned above to guide his team to an AFC championship in the last 19 years. Former Delaware Blue Hens Rich Gannon (2002) and Joe Flacco (2012) are the other members who were given a one-year pass to hoist the Lamar Hunt trophy.
It’s now been five seasons since Manning donned an NFL jersey, retiring after winning Super Bowl 50 following the 2015 season. Brady has taken his talents to Tampa Bay, rendering the Patriots an afterthought. Mahomes is still, well, really, really good. But who is the one remaining common denominator?
Roethlisberger, of course.
No, the three flexor tendor tears in his elbow were not enough to derail his now-17-year NFL career. Despite missing all but two games in 2019, the Steelers were still alive for a postseason berth in Week 17 and finished 8-8. The Steelers have not finished below .500 since Big Ben was drafted, last suffering a losing record in 2003. And with Brady and Manning, two perennial nemeses, out of the picture, should it be any surprise that Pittsburgh has ascended to the top of the AFC?
Let’s dig a little deeper into this. Against Brady head-to-head in his career, Roethlisberger is a measly 3-8 (those three wins have all come at home seven years apart, in 2004, 2011, and 2018), with a more glaring 0-2 mark in postseason meetings (2004 and 2016 AFC championship games). Pittsburgh has reached three Super Bowls in the Roethlisberger era, after the 2005, 2008, and 2010 seasons. All of those runs had one thing in common — they did not involve the need to dethrone Brady and the Patriots along the way.
Sure, the 2005 was impressive because it was the first of its kind. Pittsburgh was a No. 6 seed and won three road games to reach Super Bowl XL, which they ultimately won. That included a win over Manning’s Colts, the only playoff win Roethlisberger has against either Brady or Manning (1-3 combined). Of course, it also included wins over Jon Kitna, Jake Plummer, and Matt Hasselbeck.
In 2008, the Steelers were given the gift of a Chris Johnson injury. Rather than travel to Tennessee to take on the top-seeded Titans, who had thumped them in Week 16, the Steelers, fresh off a win over the 8-8 Chargers, hosted rookie QB Flacco and the Ravens. To that point (and still to this day), no rookie QB has ever reached the Super Bowl — and that includes Roethlisberger, who lost to Brady in the 2004 title game. The Steelers capped their run by beating the 9-7 Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
But they saved the best (or, easiest, as it were) for last: 2010. In a year chock-full of major breaks along the way, including a fortuitous two-game reduction of Roethlisberger’s suspension, the Steelers were still lined up to have to earn a berth in the big game the hard way, by beating the 14-2 Patriots in Foxborough. A day after Flacco’s Ravens unraveled in the divisional round, the Jets did the favor of all favors for the Steelers, taking out the Patriots in New England to set up what amounted to a slaughter a week later. With Braylon Edwards backflipping on the field and Bart Scott screaming into the cameras, it was obvious that the Jets had just won their Super Bowl. The following week’s game in Pittsburgh was merely gravy, and the Jets played like it in digging themselves a 24-0 halftime hole they never recovered from.
The point of this history lesson is simple. Chris Berman always says, “One is an accident, two is a trend, three is evidence.” We’ve seen this movie before. The Steelers win when it’s convenient for them. What also may be convenient for them is that their top competition, the Chiefs, have been victims of this as well, which might explain their 50-year Super Bowl drought prior to last year. Andy Reid in particular has never leaped the major hurdles his teams have faced. Last year, the Titans essentially did the Chiefs’ dirty work in taking out the Patriots and Ravens before the Chiefs turned the tables on them in the AFC championship game. Reid is a combined 0-4 lifetime in the postseason against the Patriots and Steelers, and did not win his first AFC West title in Kansas City until after Manning retired in 2016.
So, simply put: something has to give.
Before the year, my prediction was a Chiefs at Steelers AFC championship game, and at the moment it appears right on schedule. It should come as no surprise that the Steelers are back at the top, because the more elite members of the hierarchy have been conveniently removed.
Perhaps the Ravens, Bills, Titans, or even someone from even further off the grid will have something to say about things come January. But for the moment, with the Patriots’ dynasty a thing of the past and Manning comfortably settled into his post-football existence, the road to the Super Bowl looks like it will go through Heinz Field.