The Pittsburgh Steelers are out of Latrobe and back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the regular season, where everything is magnified and, you know, actually counts. The team is working through the highs and lows and dramas that go through a typical Steelers season.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: How different would Mike Tomlin’s story be in Pittsburgh if the Steelers and Patriots played in different conferences?
Do you know those graphics that they post every year showing just how ridiculously non-competitive the AFC has been for close to two decades? It’s increasingly looking less and less like parity every year. Only five quarterbacks have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl over the past 18 years.
But the thing is, half of those have been just one quarterback—Tom Brady.
Joe Flacco had one year. Then there was all the way back in 2002 when the Oakland Raiders made it to the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning combined have been in the game seven times from 2005 to 2015.
But the rest has been all Brady. In seven of Roethlisberger’s 15 seasons—in six of Tomlin’s 12 seasons—Brady and the New England Patriots have been the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. There haven’t been a whole lot of opportunities for other teams to share the wealth in the conference.
In comparison, there has only been one repeat at quarterback in the NFC in the past 18 years, that being Eli Manning, who beat the Patriots twice. A few teams—the Eagles, Panthers, and now the Rams—have also made repeat trips, but with different quarterbacks, and different head coaches.
The two conferences have been day and night in that regard, and all the 15 other teams in the AFC have suffered as a result of the Patriots specter hanging over the division going on two decades. I’m sure it makes one wonder how this team or that coach might have fared had they not had to play in the Brady era. How many more Super Bowls might the Steelers have been able to advance to? Two? One? None? How does New England shape the story of this chapter in Steelers history?