With their win in Kansas City tonight, the Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the AFC Championship Game for the sixth time since 2002. Their opponent in next weekend’s matchup on CBS at 6:40 EST, the New England Patriots, will play in their eleventh.
In fact since the clock hit midnight on January 1, 2000 and we realized Y2K was a whole lot of nothing, the only teams to play in at least one AFC Championship Game and not return, are the ex-San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers and Tennessee Titans.
Since the 2000 NFL season, the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts have made the trip four times, Denver Broncos three and Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders and New York Jets twice. That’s it.
No one is saying these teams did not deserve to be there. Each beat the teams in front of them on their way to the Conference Championship. But this somewhat repackaged game which has had at least one of the Ravens, Colts, Broncos, Steelers or Patriots in it for the past 15 years has become a dividing line.
On one hand, those who are tired of the same ole same ole and either Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger representing the AFC in the Super Bowl; and those who say these players (Manning having retired this past offseason) haven’t much time left in the league, so witnessing them duke it out is a modern version of the Roger Staubach – Terry Bradshaw games their fathers and grandfathers watched.
Meanwhile on the NFC side, since 2000, thirteen of the league’s sixteen teams have reached the Championship Game (next Sunday on FOX 3:05 EST). Only the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, and Detroit Lions have not made at least one appearance.
Everyone from Donovan McNabb to Rex Grossman has started an NFC Championship over that span. It isn’t the same as the AFC where Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have reigned for over a decade. It makes you think when posed the following question: Who is the best quarterback to start an NFC Championship Game — Kurt Warner? Donovan McNabb? Russell Wilson? Aaron Rodgers? Drew Brees? Eli Manning?
In the AFC, outsiders are not welcome. With the exceptions of Rich Gannon, Trent Dilfer and Joe Flacco, the AFC hasn’t been won by anyone besides Manning, Brady, or Roethlisberger since Steve McNair took the Titans to within a yard of a Super Bowl Championship against Kurt Warner’s Rams in January 2000.
So where does the disparity come from? Is it that Brady, Manning and Roethlisberger are that good?
Manning, left for dead by owner Bob Irsay and the Colts organization following major neck surgery that cost him the 2011 season, went on to two more AFC Championship victories and a Super Bowl title with the Broncos.
Roethlisberger, seemingly a punching bag for NFL defenses over the course of his career, has shown no signs of stopping and continues to amaze fans and commentators alike, even as he’ll turn 35 in March.
In a league where even the best quarterbacks hit a wall and hang up their cleets around 39-40, Tom Brady has found the Fountain of Youth and threw 28 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions in 12 regular season games since returning from his Deflategate suspension.
Brady turns 40 before the start of preseason in August.
So are we lucky? Bored? Depends on who you ask. I guarantee you Ravens, Bengals and Browns fans are sick of hearing about the Steelers the same way Bills, Dolphins and Jets fans are sick of the Patriots appearing in all but six of this century’s AFC Championship Games.
But when the Steelers and Patriots do battle next Sunday night we’ll witness another clash between two for sure first ballot Hall of Famers that no one imagined would have the success they achieved in their respective careers.Remember, Brady was never supposed to start the year the Patriots went to Super Bowl XXXVI. It took a Mo Lewis hit on starter Drew Bledsoe to make that possible.
If it wasn’t for Tommy Maddox spraining his elbow in a Week 2 loss at Baltimore during the 2004 season, odds are Ben Roethlisberger would have sat on the bench for a while longer.
Instead all he did was take the Steelers on a 13 game win streak and lead them to the AFC Championship against…why none other than Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.