Ben Roethlisberger waited 12 years for a playoff rematch with Tom Brady. It comes Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
Roethlisberger, playing in the AFC Championship for the fifth time (3-1) in 13 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is back in the conference title game for the first time since 2010. He missed the regular-season game in October with a knee injury.
“You’ve got one game to get to the Super Bowl. You’re going to the dragon’s lair,” Roethlisberger said, “and we’re trying to slay the dragon.”
Brady has blazed the Steelers for most of his career, including the 2004 AFC title game in Pittsburgh. Brady is 9-2 all-time against the Steelers with 26 touchdowns and three interceptions. Roethlisberger is sixth all-time with 13 playoff wins.
Brady’s next Super Bowl ring would make five; Roethlisberger has two. Only Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr has five league championships, all before the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
“It’s two old guys playing this game for a long time. He deserves all the credit he gets,” Roethlisberger said. “I think this is more than just the two of us. We’re not playing tennis. At the quarterback position you get used to it — a lot of talk quarterback vs. quarterback. I know and I’m sure he knows it’s bigger than us.”
The Dolphins and Chiefs chose to take away big plays, dropping into deep zones to invite the Steelers to feed running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell, who had 30 carries for 170 yards Sunday night at Kansas City, rushed for 1,268 yards in 12 regular-season games and became the centerpiece of Todd Haley’s offense after returning from a four-game suspension. The Steelers had eight games with 100-plus yards, and Roethlisberger went to Bell at the start of the playoffs to prepare his running back to be a bell-cow in January.
“Ben obviously knows the things I do well,” Bell said. “He came up to me, really told me to be the same player I was all year.”
Bell, averaging 168.5 rushing yards this postseason, set a franchise record for rushing yards against Miami in the wild-card round, then broke it Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
“What I’d hoped for and expected. He’s a very special football player. He’s rising up to the challenge,” Roethlisberger said.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick felt the Steelers, who survived the divisional playoff with six field goals and no touchdowns, could have scored 40 points at Kansas City. Belichick is known for scheming to take away the best player on the opposing team. There’s no doubt that player is Bell entering Sunday’s game.
“He’s really a hard guy to tackle. He’s got good vision, great patience, and he does a good job,” Belichick said. “Defensively he really forces you to be disciplined. You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles.”
Bell can put pressure on any defense and is a gifted receiver. But earning the chance to play for a seventh Lombardi Trophy might come only if the Steelers can contain Brady.
Brady faced regular pressure from the Texans out of a 3-4 front, and New England needed three touchdowns from running back Dion Lewis — one rushing, receiving and on a return — to advance to the AFC Championship. Pittsburgh was only slightly above average against the run, allowing 100 yards per game, and ranked 16th in the NFL at 242.6 yards per game in the regular season.
“The way that they beat you, it’s a full team effort,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. “For us, it’s obviously going to be minimizing (Brady’s) role and pressuring him. Houston did a pretty decent job getting pressure up the middle. Everyone pretty much knows that’s the plan, but it’s hard to execute it. He throws a good deep ball, he’s very good at moving the safety, it requires a lot of discipline. We’re going to have our hands full. This is the type of game you want to be in, this is the type of team you want to play against.”
Brady and Belichick have four Super Bowl wins in six appearances with the Patriots. Brady began the season serving a four-game suspension for Deflategate but returned to the team at an MVP level. The 39-year-old had a 112.2 passer rating with 28 touchdowns and two interceptions in 12 regular-season games.
In the Patriots’ 27-16 win Week 7 at Heinz Field, Brady was 19 of 26 for 222 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has won nine consecutive games since a 35-30 loss to the Cowboys on Nov. 13. That was the same date of the Patriots’ last loss — 31-24 to the Seattle Seahawks.