Eventually, some road teams had to win a postseason game. It finally happened twice on Sunday.
The one that mattered to the Patriots, the second one, saw Pittsburgh ride six field goals from Chris Boswell to an 18-16 win over Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. The Steelers now head to Gillette Stadium for a Sunday night date with the top-seeded Patriots, who had a tough struggle themselves with Houston on Saturday night, winning 34-16 despite playing a generally substandard game.
This will be the third time these two teams have met for the AFC Championship, but the first time at Gillette. In 2001, the Patriots shocked the Steelers 24-17 at then-new Heinz Field en route to a 20-17 upset win over St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. Then in 2004, the Patriots went back to Heinz Field and took it to the Steelers, avenging a regular season loss and winning 41-27 to advance to Super Bowl XXXIX and an eventual win over the Eagles, 24-21.
The last time the Steelers came to Foxborough for a postseason game was back in 1996. In a thick and heavy fog, the Patriots blasted the Steelers 28-3 and would eventually lose to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI. The Patriots are 3-1 all time against the Steelers in the postseason; Sunday’s game will only be the second postseason meeting between the two teams in Foxborough.
History favors the Patriots all around in this matchup. In addition to the winning record against Pittsburgh in January, the Patriots are 5-1 in AFC Championship Games at home all time. Here is a look at the previous six games.
1996 The first AFC Championship Game held in Foxborough was the only one held at old Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxborough Stadium. Thanks to a titanic upset of top seeded Denver by Jacksonville, at the time only in their second year of existence (their expansion brethren, Carolina, also made it to the NFC Championship Game that year, losing to Green Bay), the game was in Foxborough and not Denver. And so, on January 12, 1997, Bill Parcells squared off against one of his coaching protégés from the Giants, Tom Coughlin.
Curtis Martin scored a touchdown on the first offensive possession of the game for the Patriots thanks to a botched punt by Bryan Barker deep in Jaguar territory. The game then settled in to a defensive struggle, with Adam Vinatieri and Mike Hollis each kicking two field goals to make it 13-6 in the fourth quarter.
This game helped get the momentum going for the building of Gillette Stadium. With about 4 minutes to go in the first half, and Vinatieri lining up to attempt the first of his two field goals, a transformer blew outside of the stadium, knocking out much of the stadium lights and turning the scoreboard into a fuzzy mess. It was fixed in about 15-20 minutes while Parcells got an early start on halftime adjustments. Vinatieri still nailed the field goal, and this was before Adam became Automatic Adam.
The game was sealed in the fourth quarter on two Jaguar turnovers. Mark Brunnell was picked in the end zone by Willie Clay, and later a simple run play by James Stewart turned into a 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Otis Smith. The final was 20-6 Patriots, sending them to Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans against the Packers. Parcells had a lot on his mind at the time, but it was all about the New York Jets and how do I get the hell away from Bob Kraft.
Two Parcells assistants are noteworthy from this game: offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and defensive backs coach Bill Belichick. Other than Kraft, they remain the only men common to all the home AFC title games (okay, Scar missed 2014, but he’s back now, so let’s give him a pass).
And, of course, Coughlin would get his revenge from this loss later.
2003 The first AFC Championship Game held at Gillette Stadium on January 18, 2004 brought Peyton Manning and his high-powered Colt offense to New England. He wound up throwing four interceptions, three to Ty Law, and the Patriots rumbled to a 24-14 win and a date in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston against Carolina.
This game became more famous for Manning whining about holding on Patriot defenders, and trying to get the rulebook changed or the officials getting a talking to. The following year, Indianapolis came to Foxborough in the Divisional Round, got whipped even worse than the previous year, 20-3, then Tedy Bruschi went off on what he thought of the complaining by Manning and the Colts. The 2003 game does show some questionable defensive technique by some of the Patriots, but they rectified it the following year with a second straight championship season, and those “holds” Manning claims happened were not at all the main reason why his team lost.
The Patriots went on to beat Carolina in a scintillating Super Bowl in Houston, this year’s site, winning 32-29 on a late Vinatieri field goal.
2007 17-0. Two wins away from a perfect season. The San Diego Chargers came to Gillette Stadium on January 20, 2008 to become victim number 18.
The Patriots began to show that the drive for perfection was starting to get to them. Despite both LaDanian Tomlinson and Anthony Gates being seriously injured (and Philip Rivers was also below 100 percent), the Patriots managed to eke out a 21-12 win over the Bolts, improving them to 18-0 and sending them to Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Arizona and a chance at rare history.
The indelible image of this game is the sight of Tomlinson, an outspoken critic of the Patriots in past years, sitting on the bench covered up in a winter jacket. Without LT and Gates, all San Diego could muster for offense was four Nate Kaeding field goals. But the Patriots were stuck in neutral on offense, as Tom Brady threw three interceptions and had a passer rating of 66.4. A late touchdown pass to Wes Welker sealed the win, much tougher than it should have been.
The Giants made the Patriots pay for their nervousness in two weeks, ending their hopes at a perfect season with a 17-14 win in Super Bowl XLII. Coughlin got his revenge, Part I.
2011 People love it when the Patriots and Broncos seem to play every year. The football Gods should make sure that the Patriots and Baltimore Ravens do the same.
The Ravens came to Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2012. The vaunted Ravens defense put the clamps on Brady all game long, holding him to 239 yards passing, two interceptions and a passer rating of 57.5. Meanwhile, Joe Flacco was identical in passing numbers to Brady (22 of 36), but had 306 yards, two touchdowns, one pick and a rating of 95.4.
It was 20-16 Ravens heading into the fourth quarter. A one-yard sneak by Brady gave the Patriots a 3-point lead. With seconds left, Billy Cundiff had a 32-yard chip shot field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. Unbelievably, he yanked it wide left and the Patriots were sent off to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI.
Awaiting them was the Giants, perfect season killers. The Patriots dedicated the 2011 season to the memory of Myra Kraft. The Giants didn’t care. They won the Super Bowl, 21-17. Coughlin got his revenge, Part II.
2012 This is the only loss ever for the Patriots in a home AFC Championship Game. The Ray Lewis farewell tour would not be derailed. January 20, 2013, the only time the Patriots would lose at home in this game.
The Ravens did the Patriots a favor in getting a home game. Baltimore went out to Denver the previous week and knocked off the top seeded Broncos, 38-35, making the Patriots the home team. But the memory of the missed field goal kick the previous season, combined with the sentiment for Lewis, was too much for the Patriots to overcome.
Nursing a 13-7 halftime lead, the Ravens went on a 21-0 run in the second half to send them to New Orleans and Super Bowl XLVII. Flacco, who once again massacred Brady in the numbers game (he threw three scoring passes, no picks and a rating of 106.2 while Brady had more passing yards but two picks and a 62.3 rating), hit Dennis Pitta once and Anquan Boldin twice on touchdown passes to seal the 28-13 win.
Predictably, Terrell Suggs was mouthy after the game. Two weeks later, the Ravens sent Lewis home a champion with a 31-21 win over San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
2014 DeflateGate. Enough said.
Indianapolis came to town on January 18, 2015 and got stomped by the Patriots, 45-7 in a driving rainstorm at Gillette. But a second quarter interception by linebacker D’Quell Jackson got his attention. He felt the football and noticed that it was underinflated. To begin the second half, there was a delay as referee Walt Anderson kept shuttling in new footballs several times before finding one he felt was usable.
You all know what followed. Even the Colt players know that the deflated footballs would not have changed the outcome. The Patriots have dedicated the 2016 season to vindicating Brady for his four-game suspension to start the season. Even with a 28-24 win over Seattle in two weeks at Glendale, Arizona in Super Bowl XLIX, the pain from all the fallout from this farce of an investigation still smarts Brady, Kraft, Belichick and anyone associated with the Patriots.
2016 This game will be a rematch of a Week 7 game at Heinz Field. The Patriots won, 27-16, but faced Landry Jones at quarterback and not Ben Roethlisberger. The Patriots will be lucky in that they won’t face a defense nearly as ferocious as Houston’s, but Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will provide many sleepless nights for Belichick. Kansas City did keep Pittsburgh out of the end zone on Sunday night in defeat. The Patriots might not be so lucky, but Brady should be able to rebound from a substandard game next weekend.
The remaining four quarterbacks left are Brady, Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. Should be a great weekend of offensive football. Houston and Super Bowl LI await.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary