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Tim Benz: Steelers will have to do their own dirty work to win AFC

| Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, 5:54 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster during the first quarter against the Patriots on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster during the first quarter against the Patriots on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger said he wants to play the Jaguars again .

Good. Because that's probably going to happen.

He better want to play at New England again in the AFC championship game, too, since it appears no one else from this AFC playoff field is upsetting the Patriots.

For as much as Steelers fans reveled in watching Baltimore gag away a playoff spot, and for as happy as Roethlisberger and his offensive line should be that the Chargers vaunted pass defense is absent from the postseason bracket as well, those were the two best bets of someone knocking out the Patriots before the AFC title game and giving the Steelers two consecutive home dates.

Unless the Chiefs can jump in a time machine back to opening day, of course.

The Titans and Bills qualified as AFC wild-card teams. But they hardly qualify as legitimate hopes of aiding the Steelers to a path of least resistance to the Super Bowl.

In other words: legitimate hopes of taking out the Patriots before the Steelers have to go to Foxborough.

I'm sure a lot of Al Bundy, Polk High School football legends are reading this right now and saying: “That's not what Steeler fans want! To be the best, you gotta beat the best! We want New England again!”

Sure. That sounds good.

But picture this: Next Saturday night, the Patriots somehow are losing 28-27 in the divisional round. Stephen Gostkowski is lining up for a potential winning field goal with 1 second left on the clock.

Well, Al, are you honestly rooting for him to make it? Honestly?

Ponder that and get back to me.

The likely scenario is that Al and all of his barstool buddies will get their wish of Steelers versus Patriots again, though. That, of course, is assuming the Steelers take care of business themselves.

When asked Tuesday about the depth of the AFC playoff field — or lack thereof — Mike Tomlin was predictably diplomatic.

“It's the playoffs. They're all quality teams,” the coach said. “We respect everyone that's in the field.”

Even with the prospect of another playoff road trip to Foxborough looming, Steelers defensive captain Cam Heyward said he actually likes being the second seed.

“It's perfect for us,” Heyward said after his team's win over Cleveland. “Nobody is expecting us because we aren't the No. 1. We're just ready to play football now.”

The Steelers do have a good history of emerging as the AFC champion from the second slot in the playoff tree.

Both of the Tomlin-led Super Bowl teams (2008, '10) began the postseason as the second seed. Bill Cowher's 1995 Super Bowl team also got there via the No. 2 position. As did Chuck Noll's 1979 group.

However, the notable connection between those clubs is that they all had AFC championship games at home because someone else knocked out the top seed first.

“I'm just glad we have a seat at the table. I'm sure Cam is, too. He'd dress up that seat however he can because that's where we are,” Tomlin said with a laugh.

Sure. That might have been a slight oversell by Heyward. But selling himself and his teammates an early mouthful of optimism might be important three weeks in advance of a potential return engagement in New England.

Basically, if you say it long enough, then you just might believe it.

The numbers insist otherwise. Of the Steelers' eight conference championships, only two were claimed on the road. Throughout the history of the AFC championship game, the Patriots are the only team with more than two road wins.

Steelers fans remember two of those victories all too well.

Would it be fun to return that favor in Gillette Stadium? Absolutely. Would it be nice to finally knock off the big bad bully on the block? You bet.

But you know what is else fun? Actually going to the Super Bowl. Regardless of how you get there.

Oh, and then bragging about it.

With that in mind, remember that any route to the Super Bowl for the Steelers would mean tying the Patriots for the most trips ever (nine). Plus, keeping New England out of the big game one way or another would prevent that franchise from getting a shot at tying the Steelers' record of six Vince Lombardi Trophies.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That line between Pittsburgh and U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis doesn't go through Massachusetts.

Although looking at this playoff field — now more than ever — it appears that's exactly the line these Steelers will have to follow.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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