Tim Benz: Steelers want a win over Patriots to matter this time
It meant nothing.
Oh, sure. For a few hours on December 16, 2018, it was a lot of fun.
To borrow a phrase from Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, his team had finally managed to “be the dragon” by slaying the dragon.
The dragon that usually flies into Pittsburgh from New England every year or two, breathing fire and laying waste to Heinz Field.
Maybe the enjoyment even lasted a day or so after that Sunday when the Steelers finally beat the New England Patriots for the first time since 2011, by a final score of 17-10.
Joe Haden’s interception of a rare duck by Tom Brady was the biggest highlight of the entire season.
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I doubt Brady has ever thrown a pass that poorly at Heinz Field. But if he did, Rob Gronkowski probably ended up pulling it in for a catch anyway.
Not that day, though. For a change.
But in the end, what did it mean?
The Steelers had pulled off perhaps their most enjoyable and fulfilling victory at Heinz Field since the last time they had beaten New England in 2011, and it didn’t even help them get into the playoffs.
A week later, they blew a lead to the New Orleans Saints. Two weeks later, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield threw the ball to Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosely as a disheartened Pittsburgh crowd watched on the scoreboard in the stadium with the players.
That was it. The season ended. An AFC North title defense crashed and burned short of the playoffs, despite a win over the boogeymen from Massachusetts.
“It was hugely disappointing,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said. “First year beating them and not making the playoffs. It was tough.”
As DeCastro went on to say, though, it’s a new year and 2018 doesn’t matter.
No, it doesn’t. But maybe it should. It’d be nice to see the Steelers apply some valuable lessons from 2018 and avoid putting themselves in a corner come December, based on failures over the first three months of the season.
If they should somehow grab an upset in New England Sunday night — and finally beat Tom Brady on the road for the first time since he became the Patriots starter in 2001 — then, they should pay off that accomplishment by avoiding the usual bad-loss pitfalls and make the playoffs this time.
As opposed to last year. When they lost games in Denver and Oakland. When they tied Cleveland. When they gagged away a big lead at home to the Los Angeles Chargers.
“I’m done with trying to win significant games here or there. Or saying this is ‘the one’ that determines the season,” guard Ramon Foster said Monday. “None of it means crap unless you make it to the playoffs, which we didn’t last year. Or win the Super Bowl, which we didn’t last year.”
Amen. I don’t know if truer words have ever been spoken in that locker room.
“That sucked,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey bemoaned when recalling a non-playoff result despite beating the eventual Super Bowl champions. “That sucked because they are one of the teams in the league that everyone definitely wants to win against.”
Which Pouncey and his teammates did. But, to his greater point, for what?
To have to watch the Jumbotron with all your chips on the table, rooting for the Browns to save your skin in Week 17?
The Steelers are better than that. Or, at least, they should’ve been in 2018.
A win in Foxborough Sunday would go a long way toward avoiding such a scenario this December. And it would definitely go a long way toward exorcising some demons about having to play in Gillette Stadium.
Or it could mean nothing if they allow 2019 to be undermined by bad losses against lesser competition and blown leads again.
So much of the optimism surrounding the Steelers this summer was about “a fresh start,” or a better attitude, outlook, and chemistry.
Those intangibles are fine. Now let’s see if they can tangibly change results.
Finally beating Brady on his turf — and not beating themselves in other places on the schedule — would be the best places to start.