The New England Patriots will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LI. Both teams are familiar with playing on the game’s biggest stage – they are also familiar with having to play one another in order to get there.
While they have not played each other in a do-or-die situation since January 2005, this year’s AFC Championship Game will be the fifth overall postseason meeting between the Patriots and the Steelers. And, as a look back at the last four shows, playoff history has been kind to New England.
1996 divisional playoffs: Patriots 28, Steelers 3
Despite having faced each other four times in the postseason entering this year’s matchup, only the first meeting has been played in New England – and the home team dominated it from start to finish. Thanks to three touchdowns in the first 20 minutes of the game, the Patriots jumped to a 21-0 lead.
While one of two Drew Bledsoe interceptions helped the Steelers get on the board in the third quarter, New England never allowed their opponent to actually get back into the game. The defense was dominant for four quarters while Curtis Martin rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns made sure the Patriots controlled the contest at all times.
Due to beating the Steelers, New England advanced to the second AFC Championship Game in franchise history. The team would then go on to the Super Bowl, a game it ultimately lost.
1997 divisional playoffs: Steelers 7, Patriots 6
A year after first meeting the playoffs, the Patriots and Steelers met again. This time, however, the game was played in Pittsburgh and it ended with a different winner: In a contest dominated by defense it was the home team’s that came out on top.
On the day, the Steelers registered four takeaways – also setting up the game’s only touchdown that way – and allowed only two field goals. New England’s final attempt to win the game late in the fourth quarter was stopped by future Patriot Mike Vrabel strip-sacking Drew Bledsoe.
The Steelers would go on to lose to the Denver Broncos the following week.
2001 AFC Championship: Patriots 24, Steelers 17
The first time the two teams met with a Super Bowl berth on the line saw Tom Brady exit late in the first half. Thanks to a Troy Brown punt return touchdown, the Patriots were already ahead 7-3 at that point, though. And when Drew Bledsoe entered the game, he quickly helped the team take a 14-3 lead into halftime.
After a blocked field goal made it 21-3 early in the third quarter, the Steelers started to rally back. However, despite scoring twice, they were unable to close the gap. Two fourth quarter interceptions by the Patriots finally sealed the deal and their third trip to the Super Bowl.
Two weeks after AFC title game victory over the Steelers, New England would eventually win its first Super Bowl.
2004 AFC Championship: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
While the 15-1 Steelers won the regular season matchup between the two teams, the 14-2 Patriots beat them for the AFC Championship. New England started the game firing on all cylinders: The team registered takeaways on Pittsburgh’s first two drives and converted them into a 10-0 lead.
The Patriots would score two more touchdowns prior to the half to enter the locker rooms up 24-3. While Pittsburgh was more productive in the second half, the team never came closer than 14 points. In the end, the Patriots were able to score 41 points on the road against the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense.
As has been the case in 2001, the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl after defeating the Steelers in the conference title game.
Despite not having met in the playoffs prior to the 1996 season, the Patriots and Steelers a storied postseason history. On Sunday, the next chapter will be written.