PATRIOTS 36, STEELERS 17
Steelers' record: 13-6
One year ago: 11-7
Series record (including playoffs): Steelers lead, 15-14
It's the AFC Championship Game, and the winner gets a trophy that it really doesn't want and a chance to play for the trophy everybody in this sport wants. That's the major storyline every time this game is played, but sometimes the participants add spice to proceedings. That's what pairing the Steelers and the Patriots did for the 2016 version.
Simply looking at the numbers describing the all-time series history between these teams doesn't really do it justice. Within that record is a couple of AFC Championship Games at Heinz Field, and even though only Ben Roethlisberger and William Gay are the only Steelers' players to have experienced even one of those, many others have lived through the regular season matchups that always seem to end with the Patriots as winners.
Since the 2004 AFC Championship Game, these teams had met seven times before this matchup, and the Steelers were 2-5 in those games. Three of the losses have come in New England, with the other two in Pittsburgh, and all seven times the two teams were contenders to varying degrees. But beyond that, the Steelers and Patriots have been two of the dominant franchises in the AFC since the conference was formed for the 1970 season.
The Steelers lead all NFL teams with six Lombardis, two of which were won in the 2000s. The Patriots have won four Lombardis, all of which were won in the 2000s. Coming into this game, the Steelers had won eight AFC Championships, and so had the Patriots. The winner of the 2016 version would become the first franchise in league history to play in nine Super Bowls.
But those labels, any of the legacy talk that took place in both cities throughout the week leading up to this game was going to have little impact on the outcome of it.
"If you're mentally weak enough to buy into it and feel like it's the deciding factor, then you shouldn't be playing this sport," Ramon Foster had told a reporter earlier in the week. "You definitely shouldn't be playing for our team. I don't think any of that matters. What matters on Sunday is our 11 on the field beating their 11 on the field. I think that's where teams mess up. None of that matters except for the 11 guys on the field."
And as for the critical categories of this particular matchup of 11-on-11, they figured to be the typical ones. Turnover ratio. Red zone efficiency. Third-down conversion percentage. Special teams touchdowns allowed vs. special teams touchdowns scored.
HOW THE STORYLINE PLAYED OUT**
The Steelers picked a bad time for their worst overall performance in a couple of months, and the Patriots made them pay dearly for that. The Steelers were minus-2 in turnover ratio; only 1-for-3 in the red zone, including an unacceptable 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations; and while their offense converted a respectable 60 percent on third downs, their defense allowed the Patriots to convert 65 percent.
The Steelers had 10 offensive possessions in the game: they punted four times, and they turned the ball over three times – one lost fumble, one interceptions, and once on downs. By contrast, the Patriots had 11 possessions, and they scored on seven of those, with two others being virtual run-out-the-clock situations at the end of each half.
Game action from the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.
FIRST HALF STATS THAT STAND OUT**
The teams combined to convert 11-of-16 third downs – 5-for-8 for the Steelers, and 6-for-8 for the Patriots. There were no penalties called on either team. Each team finished with 12 first downs. There were no turnovers, and the Steelers recorded the only sack – Javon Hargrave on Tom Brady.
THROUGH THREE QUARTERS
At the end of the third quarter, Tom Brady had completed 28-of-36 (77.8 percent) for 361 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions, and Chris Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.