Today was going to be the day.
It was going to be the day the Pittsburgh Steelers finally beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game to get a spot in the Super Bowl. It was going to be the day Ben Roethlisberger finally proved himself against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It was going to be the day because the Steelers finally had Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell healthy for the playoffs.
Coming into the game, the Steelers were 2-9 against the Brady-led Patriots. Pittsburgh lost to New England earlier this season, 27-16 — but that was with Landry Jones under center. Today was going to be different. It had to be. “Stairway to Seven” and all that, right?
It was going to be the day.
But then the Patriots marched down the field to take a 10-0 lead. But then Brady started picking apart a young secondary. But then the Steelers let New England wide receiver Chris Hogan roam virtually undefended. But then Bell played only one snap after the first quarter because of a groin injury. But then Sammie Coates dropped what looked like a sure touchdown in the endzone. But then a Jesse James touchdown was reversed when he was ruled a yard short of the endzone.
It wasn’t the day — it wasn’t the day at all.
Instead, the Patriots beat the Steelers 36-17 to earn a spot in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons. It’s New England’s seventh Super Bowl appearance under head coach Bill Belichick and with Brady under center. In the end, Pittsburgh was just another stop on Brady’s revenge train.
As a whole, it was a thoroughly underwhelming performance from the Steelers.
“Road Roethlisberger” showed up against the Patriots, and he threw just one touchdown to go alongside one interception; he’s now thrown 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on the road this entire season. Sunday, Roethlisberger was 31-of-47 for 314 yards and a 83.1 passer rating, while Brady was 32-of-42 for 384 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 127.5 passer rating.
Roethlisberger certainly suffered from New England’s brilliant coverage of Brown, limiting him to seven catches for just 77 yards. Brown was well-defended by Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, which meant Roethlisberger had to look outside of the league’s top receiver. He had to rely on Eli Rogers (seven receptions on 10 targets for 66 yards), Williams (seven receptions on seven targets for 51 yards), Jesse James (five receptions on seven targets for 48 yards), Cobi Hamilton (two receptions on five targets for 37 yards and Pittsburgh’s lone touchdown), Sammie Coates (two receptions on five targets for 34 yards), David Johnson (one reception on one target for 1 yard), Darrius Heyward-Bey (no receptions on two targets) and Roosevelt Nix (no receptions on one target).
Not exactly a group that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing secondaries.
Pittsburgh struggled all season without a true No. 2 receiver because of the suspension of Martavis Bryant, and the lack of someone to step up when Brown was double- or triple-covered finally caught up with the team.
And while DeAngelo Williams is a very good running back, he’s no replacement for Bell and wasn’t going to get the job done against a tough New England defense (Williams finished with just 34 rushing yards.) But even when Bell was in, the Patriots matched his patience — unlike what any other team did this season — and limited him to 20 yards on six carries.
The Steelers’ red zone struggles continued against New England. A week after going 0-7 in the red zone against the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh went 1-3 in the red zone and 0-2 in goal-line situations against the Patriots.
But the loss doesn’t just fall on the shoulder of an offense that stalled. The Steelers’ defense looked like it did when the two teams last met in October and not like the defense that showed up during Pittsburgh’s nine-game win streak.
Tom Brady never felt much pressure — he was sacked twice, once by safety Sean Davis and once by nose tackle Javon Hargrave — and was able to take what seemed like all the time in the world to find his targets wide open downfield. A fearsome linebacker group made up of Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier was relatively quiet.
Pittsburgh was able to shut down New England’s run game — LeGarrette Blount had just 47 yards and Dion Lewis had 11 — but, in the end, it didn’t matter because the Steelers’ secondary got dissected by arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game.
Two Patriots receivers finished with more than 100 yards: Hogan had 180 yards and two touchdowns, and Julian Edelman had 118 yards and New England’s other touchdown. At times, it felt as though there wasn’t a Steeler defensive back within 10 feet of those two.
Rookie cornerback Artie Burns looked overmatched, and Ross Cockrell didn’t do much of anything. There wasn’t much safety help, either. Rookie Sean Davis struggled, and Mike Mitchell looked like a liability out there. He bit hard on a run fake (despite the Patriots having no semblance of a run game) and completely lost track of Hogan on the first touchdown. Mitchell was also responsible for Hogan on his second touchdown, which came as a result of a brilliant flea-flicker.
Sunday night, the Steelers just fell flat all the way around. Sure, the game might have gone a little differently if Bell hadn’t been injured, if Pittsburgh’s defense got a pass rush going and covered via a zone, if Coates had caught the pass in the endzone, if James had been able to get one more yard for the touchdown.
But that’s football.
The Steelers learned how much further they have to go if they want to beat the New England Patriots and win a seventh Super Bowl.
Today wasn’t the day.
Maybe it’s next season.