When hands are planted in Gillette Stadium's FieldTurf on Sunday night, audibles are barked and receivers are jammed at the line of scrimmage, there will be more at stake beyond a trip to the Super Bowl.
Of course, things will get downright gladiatorial, and if you're thinking the Patriots are likely to roll with ease, you probably haven't been watching that closely. A throwdown of a showdown is in the offing. But there's something else at play, too, and that's each team's case as the best franchise in NFL history.
Whoever wins the AFC title tilt will be the team with the most Super Bowl appearances ever at nine. The Steelers have six Super Bowl wins to the Patriots' four, which in a very broad sense gives them the nod for all-time supremacy, but context is always a bit trickier than that.
For instance, that wagon of a Steelers team, with its Steel Curtain defense, that won four championships in six years –1975, 1976, 1979 and 1980 – did so in an era with less player movement. That was a league long on stability, which was cool if you were a dominant team, and sucked if you couldn't get out of the morass.
Football has always been too much of a game of attrition for the usual standards of dynasties in other sports to apply. You can't, for instance, pull a New York Islanders and win four titles in four years. But four in six? That makes you like the football version of the teams behind the best runs of the New York Yankees and the Montreal Canadiens.
For all of the talk of that aforesaid defense – and do yourself a favor and watch the likes of Jack Lambert all but tear running backs in half in old game clips – they were nearly as loaded on offense. Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann.
The league at the time was very pirate-y, you might say, with grown men doing things to each other more the stuff of the prison yard than the gridiron. Which was part of the reason for the identity of those Steelers as mad bastards with a whole lot of swagger that you were in for an ass kicking, win or lose.
Not a lot of teams in professional sports maintain an identity over the decades. Everything changes: rosters, coaches, the way the game is played. Bradshaw, for instance, put up numbers that wouldn't allow you to be a practice squad QB in today's league, which is a veritable garbage dump for all things quarterback, he who plays the position that must always be revered, protected, worshipped.
But the Steelers have always been badass. They play on the edge, and even moves like Antonio Brown's locker room foray into social media kind of seems in step with who the Steelers always have been, a total opposite to the Navy-like squad of discipline like the Patriots are. They're more like a ship of cutthroats. And the playoffs, which is a very different sort of game than NFL regular season fare, a sloop's worth of cutthroats can be exceedingly successful and fun to watch.
The Patriots haven't had the decades of what we might think of "being there" like the Steelers – that is, always around, capable of making a run. Both teams lost a Super Bowl in the mid to late 1990s, and the Pats at least went to one in 1985, experiencing a beat down that was worse than its 46-10 score indicated at the hands of the Chicago Bears, one of the best single-season football teams to date. They were solid in the late 1970s, a very poor man's Steelers. Interesting, but no titles.
Their argument for all-time supremacy rests on the context of this era, when rosters regularly flip, and a team like the 49ers seemingly goes through a coach a year whereas the Steelers have had three dating back to the era of Woodstock.
What the Patriots have done this century make them the finest regular season team the league has had. But the Patriots have a problem, of sorts, so far as the parsing of the historical books goes: this is their sixth straight conference championship game. So far, they have one title to show for that. Fail to get another this year, and what do we start to say? That's an awful lot like getting into the red zone and having to settle for field goals, in the grand scheme of your franchise's history, and when you have the best ever coach, and the best ever quarterback to boot.
These teams always play good games, and the results of a number of those games are what the Patriots' legacy is built on. They often beat the bully. The Navy prevails, the pirates sink down into the drink.
This dynastic run for the Pats, if we're going to call it that, made a lot of headway in Pittsburgh in the 2001 AFC title game, when Brady, the man who never leaves games with an injury, had to do just that and Drew Bledsoe stepped in to throw a back of the end zone fade pass that Brady was still mastering.
Then there was Ben Roethlisberger's rookie year in 2004, which was a lot like Brady's first year of significant playing time. Both QBs were above average game managers, but game managers all the same, the rest of their respective teams' talent carrying the day.
Those Steelers, at 15-1, had home field advantage over the 14-2 Patriots for the AFC title game. They had beaten them earlier in the year. But records in the NFL are often incredibly deceiving. Not that there's a huge gap, record-wise, between that pair. Those Patriots were just better, though – hell, they might be one of those three or four absolute-top-of-the-stack teams like those '85 Bears.
This year's editions of pirates and midshipman are far, far closer together than records indicate. Vegas has this basically as a field goal game favoring the Pats, if you discount the home field advantage. But what if there were odds makers of a higher power, who pitted one team's historical case against another's, for a gridiron battle royale that spanned decades and generations? Call it a push, and check back late Sunday night to see where those odds stand going forward.