The New England Patriots have been the NFL’s model franchise for the past 18 years. No team has had similar success since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady led the team to its first Super Bowl championship after the 2001 season. Since then, the Patriots have made it back to the game’s biggest stage seven more times – three of which during the last four seasons.
Safe to say, the Patriots will again be heavily favored to represent their conference in the Super Bowl this season. According to former NFL safety Ryan Clark, however, 2018 might be the year one of New England’s long-time rivals will dethrone the two-time reigning AFC champions: the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team which employed Clark for eight of his 13 years in the league.
Last season, the Steelers came close to beating the Patriots in the regular season but never got the chance for a postseason rematch. Seeded as the number two team in the AFC, Pittsburgh imploded in the divisional playoff round and was defeated by the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars – a team that went on to face the Patriots in Foxboro and subsequently finish the year as the runner-ups in the conference.
This year, Clark sees the Steelers get over the hump that is the Jaguars and more prominently the Patriots as he told Adam Schefter on his podcast:
I do [think that the Steelers will win the AFC]. I think this is their year. I was actually asked on Stephen A. Smith’s show who is the biggest threat to the New England Patriots – obviously, because we’re always trying to figure out. I think the Pittsburgh Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger being motivated the way he is, this defense improving, and it kind of being a “show me” year for this team, for this head coach, for this quarterback, for this defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The Steelers certainly have a very good team that looks similar to the one that finished the 2017 season with a 13-3 record and top eight in both scoring offense and scoring defense. So naturally, Pittsburgh will be in contention for the AFC title yet again – and Clark’s prediction, despite his obvious connection with the club, is actually one that could turn out to be true after all.
However, history is not on his side: with Tom Brady starting, the Patriots have played 13 games versus Pittsburgh. Only two of those games were won by the Steelers, and none of them over the last six years. All streaks must come to an end at one point, of course, but as long as Brady does not show signs of slowing down, he and his team should still be favored to emerge victoriously at any given time.
But who knows, maybe the Steelers will never run into the Patriots in the first place – which is exactly what happened when the team won its lone two Super Bowls of the salary cap era: in both 2005 and 2008, Pittsburgh did not have to cross paths with New England to get to the title game. Maybe 2018 will be the same. The odds of that happening do not look too good, though, when judged by historic precedent.