By Sterling Pingree
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots are on a collision course with each other that ends with them playing in the AFC Championship game. The rest of the AFC has stepped out of the way like extras in Saturday Night Fever when John Travolta hit the dance floor and seem perfectly content to let Pittsburgh and New England “hustle” for the conference championship.
If the AFC is going to be decided in the middle of the ring like a championship fight, let’s look at the tail of the tape for the rest of the season as both teams are gridlocked at 9-2 (with Pittsburgh holding onto the slightest of edges for first place.)
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati 5-6
New England at Buffalo 6-5
Pittsburgh vs Baltimore 6-5
New England at Miami (MNF) 4-7
Pittsburgh vs New England 9-2
Pittsburgh at Houston 4-7
New England vs Buffalo 6-5
Pittsburgh vs Cleveland 0-11
New England vs New York Jets 4-7
The combined records of Steeler opponents down the stretch is 24-31, while the Patriots’ opponents currently stand at 29-25. Pittsburgh plays one definite playoff team (New England) and one potential wild card team (Baltimore). New England plays one playoff team (Pittsburgh) and 2 games against a potential wild card team (both are with Buffalo).
The question becomes: does the fate of home field advantage throughout the playoffs hinge solely on the outcome of the week 15 matchup between these two teams? The easy answer is yes, and a week ago I would have agreed with that sentiment but after seeing Pittsburgh narrowly defeat a Brett Hundley led Packers at Heinz Field, I’m starting to wonder if Pittsburgh could drop one of these other games down the stretch. It’s possible, but I think it’d have to be either this week at Cincinnati or next week against a suddenly frisky Ravens team. However, the same can be said for the Patriots as the match up with the Steelers is the end of a 3 week road odyssey and comes off a short week because of their Monday nighter in Miami.
Pittsburgh has been unimpressive on the road this season, even more so when you consider the futility of the Kansas City Chiefs since Pittsburgh won at Arrowhead in week 6. They have narrow road victories over the hapless Colts, the helpless Browns and even lost to the Bears by 6. By the same token the Patriots haven’t loss a road game since the AFC championship game at Denver in January of 2016.
It seems like the road to Super Bowl LII in the AFC goes through New England or Pittsburgh and the rest of the AFC seems content to let it happen. The next two weeks of divisional games will be telling for both teams. However on December 17th, Christmas comes a week early as the two greatest AFC franchises do battle in round one, of a fight that is scheduled to go two rounds.
It’s been said that when the Celtics and Lakers squared off in the 80’s, that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson weren’t just fighting for the NBA championship, they were fighting for the championship of each other. With the Steelers having 6 Super Bowls to the Patriots 5, by far the two leaders in the AFC, these games mean even more in a historical sense. Pittsburgh has been the big boy on the block for a long time, but with everybody else clearing the way, it feels like we’re in for a show down. The only question is: whose corral gets to host?
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.