FOXBORO, Mass. — What’s the biggest difference between this Sunday’s New England Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers game and the last time these teams met in Week 7?
Two words: Big Ben.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed two games earlier this season after undergoing knee surgery, including Pittsburgh’s late-October matchup against New England. Career backup Landry Jones started that game, and the Patriots predictably won 27-16.
That won’t be the case this weekend at Gillette Stadium. All signs point to Roethlisberger being good to go for the AFC Championship Game, setting up a showdown between two of the most accomplished quarterbacks of the past two decades: Roethlisberger on one side, Tom Brady on the other.
Brady and Roethlisberger have combined to win six of the last 15 Super Bowls, and the Patriots and Steelers are a combined 21-5 this season when their respective starting QBs are active.
“(Roethlisberger) is one of the best,” Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan said Thursday. “He’s been doing it since I was in grade school watching this guy play. So it’s an honor to play against him. We know what he does for that offense. He’s their leader. Even though they have tremendous talent around him, he’s the guy that makes it go. So everyone’s got to do their job against these guys, because they don’t just have one thing going. They’re a great team, and they’re one of the best teams in the AFC.”
One area of concern for the Steelers: Roethlisberger has been far less effective away from Heinz Field this season. He’s completed 70.8 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions at home but just 59.4 percent with nine scores and eight picks on the road.
Plus, the Patriots’ defense is among the best in the NFL, allowing a league-best 15.6 points per game during the regular season.
“This group defensively has been a group that felt like we had a chip on our shoulder,” Ryan said. “We’ve been doubted early in the year, called out by the media publicly. So we just felt like we’re just going to ignore the noise and keep doing our job and working hard. And now when people are singing our praises, we’re going continue to do the same thing, because we’re the same group of guys that are working hard and having fun together.”
Some additional notes from Thursday:
— Martellus Bennett is one of several Patriots players who will be playing in their first conference title game. The veteran tight end won just one playoff game over his first eight NFL seasons — a total he already has equaled in one season with New England.
“I’m usually in Seattle right now watching my brother (Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett) play,” Bennett said. “But the four teams that are here are the four teams that deserve to be here. We earned this. I earned my right to be on this team and to be playing with my teammates out here in this game.”
Does that mean Michael, whose Seahawks were bounced in the divisional round last weekend, will make the trip to Foxboro, Mass., for the AFC title game?
“I don’t know,” Martellus Bennett said. “He might be in Hawaii.”
Lastly, Bennett said he’s feeling fine after being limited in practice Wednesday with a knee injury.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel pretty good. I ran around and jumped around (Thursday), so it was a good day.”
Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images