By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — For those who grew up in the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers had several distinct rivals in the National Football League.
The Cleveland Browns were an original one, as the on-field battles were as brutal as those in the stands between the teams’ fans. The Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Oilers, the Steelers’ other AFC Central Division opponents, had similar on-field classics through the early years.
The Oilers, however, elevated their status against the Steelers with two AFC championship game contests. The Oakland Raiders also became one for matching the Steelers in physicality on the field and general contempt from top to bottom throughout the organization.
The Steelers and Raiders also played in several AFC title games for a shot at the Super Bowl. Some would call the Dallas Cowboys a rival as well, because the Steelers played the NFC power and beat them in Super Bowl X and XIII.
Nowadays, the old Browns — transplanted to Baltimore — are considered by most as the club’s top rival. The Steelers and Ravens play at least twice a season, and the disdain between the two franchises has increased since the latter’s inception in the NFL in 1996. The Steelers beat them in the AFC title game at Heinz Field before winning Super Bowl XLIII after the 2009 season.
But where to the New England Patriots rank? Surely, they are among the most-hated opponents for the Steelers Nation, and since they usually rate among the top NFL teams each game against them is significant.
When the Steelers (6-2) face the Patriots (6-2) Sunday night at 8:20 at Heinz Field, front-runner status in the AFC is at stake.
“They usually spread us out to throw the little dink and dunk passes to take what we give them,” Steelers defensive tackle Chris Hoke said. “And they’re among the best teams in the league at doing that. But you can’t give up on the run against them, because I’m sure they’ll try to do that, too. I don’t think they’ll throw on every down, but you never know.
“They’re one of those teams who we’ve had a lot of battles with over the years, and they’ve probably gotten us more than we’ve gotten them. So, it’s always exciting to prepare for these guys and play them, because it’s always a good game. (But) they’re not like the Ravens. Ravens Week is special, but this is still a big game, and we want to get after them.”
Steelers second-year player Ziggy Hood is a novice to the series against the Patriots, and even though they’ve been successful in recent years he didn’t appear to be more excited to play them than in any other game.
“The guys haven’t talked about this game too much, not as much as we did the Ravens going into that game,” Hood said. “I guess it’s just the next game on the schedule. (But) we have to play and perform well, because if we don’t — especially on defense — they’ll be able to exploit everything that we do.
“The Ravens are a rival game, an AFC North game, and it’s always important. I guess there’s some teams that you’ll always get up a little more for, and some you don’t. But we try to be as even as possible and get up for each game to be ready to play on Sunday. And you have to be ready to play every week in the NFL.”
Steelers safety Ryan Clark said he’s amped to play every week, whether it’s the Patriots, Ravens, Browns or Bengals.
“It’s a blessing to be able to play in this league,” Clark said. “So, it doesn’t matter who we play, but I’m sure the Patriots love me. I’m one of their favorite defensive backs in the NFL.
“And I’m sure they can’t wait to see me and shake my hand and hug me. But, other than that, it really doesn’t matter who we play each week. We just want to go out there and win some football games.”
Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton didn’t think much of his club’s rivalry with the Patriots. In fact, he refused to even call it a rivalry.
“We don’t play them enough for me to remember all the times that we’ve played them,” Hampton said. “And I really don’t think about it. Do you want me to bring up about the times they cheated? I’m not going to start that (stuff) up again. I won’t get into that. It was a long time ago.
“It’s hard to say a team is your rival when you don’t play them each year. So, I don’t consider the Patriots like the Ravens. It’s a little different with them, because we play them twice a year. And it’s always an important game against them because it’s a division game for both teams.”
Inside linebacker James Farrior began his tenure with the Steelers against the Patriots in 2002 in New England. The Steelers had lost to them just eight months earlier in the AFC championship game at Heinz Field, and Tom Brady went wild with 21 straight pass plays to open the game.
“That was my first game for Pittsburgh, against the Patriots, and I remember it vividly,” Farrior said. “I had never been in a game like that before, and I haven’t been in one like that since. It was crazy, 20-30-some straight passes, but we’ve seen it now and we’ll be ready for it.
“I guess you could say it’s going to be a great chess match between their offense and our defense. We’re prepared for them, and I know they’re going to be prepared for us. The one who makes better adjustments will be the most successful. So, we’ll see what happens.”
Even though the Steelers are 14-10 all-time against New England with a 10-7 mark at home, they are just 4-7 since a playoff loss on the road in 1996 after five straight home wins. The Steelers won 33-10 on the road in 2008, but were just 1-6 in the previous seven games with three straight losses. Two were in AFC championship games at home.
So, rivalry or not, the Steelers have been in checkmate for the most part in the past decade in games against the Patriots.
Notes: Steelers TE Heath Miller (left knee), left OG Chris Kemoeatu (left ankle, knee) and DE Brett Keisel (hamstring) have not practiced this week. … Keisel appears to be the least likely to play against the Patriots, but there are still two more days for a decision to be made. … If Keisel can’t play, Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason will be the starters. … Kemoeatu’s likely replacement would be Ramon Foster. … Matt Spaeth and David Johnson would get even more reps if Miller is out.
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