Of the last 10 AFC championship games, nine have featured New England, Pittsburgh or both.
The Steelers and Patriots have won multiple Super Bowls this century and been model franchises for other NFL teams to copy. Now, both are just trying to hang onto what remains of their glorious run.
Pittsburgh's situation is more dire this season, as it heads to New England this Sunday (4:25 p.m. kickoff). An offense that can't run the ball and a defense that can't stop the run have contributed to a 2-5 record. A loss to the Raiders last week puts Pittsburgh in real danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight season. The Steelers haven't missed the playoffs in back-to-back years since 1999-2000.
The Patriots are probably going to the playoffs at 6-2. But there is an uneasy feeling that New England's star is fading too.
The Patriots have pulled off some close wins, but injuries are hammering them. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, their two best defensive players, are done for the season. So is offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who broke his leg last week. New England lost Wes Welker to Denver in the offseason and cut Aaron Hernandez when he was arrested and later charged with first-degree murder. This team has lost a lot of key pieces since the end of last season. Then there's the Tom Brady issue.
Brady is having his worst season, statistically speaking. His passes have frequently been off target. Brady has never had a season in which he didn't complete at least 60 percent of his passes, but has a 55.7 completion percentage this season. His 74.9 rating would be a career low too, by a large margin. He has never had a rating less than 85.7 over a full season, and that was in 2002. His right hand is swollen and looks injured, and he doesn't have the targets to throw to that he has the past few years.
It's amazing the Patriots are 6-2 given all their issues, and while they're still capable of making it back to another AFC title game, nobody fears them anymore.
New England and Pittsburgh have played some great games this century, including two AFC championship games against each other. Sunday could be another great game. Both proud teams won't let their dynasties end without a fight.
Here are the other NFL games this week, from best to worst (all times Eastern, all games Sunday unless noted otherwise):
2. Cincinnati at Miami, 8:25 p.m. (Thursday): Could it be? A good Thursday night matchup? It's true, the Bengals are looking to strengthen their AFC North lead while the Dolphins want to stay in the playoff race.
3. Chicago at Green Bay, 8:40 p.m. (Monday): The best traditional rivalry in the NFL, and maybe all of sports.
4. San Diego at Washington, 1 p.m.: This could be a fun game. Neither team plays much defense, so quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Robert Griffin III could each have big days.
5. Kansas City at Buffalo, 1 p.m.: Can Kansas City improve to 9-0? After this, the Chiefs have a bye and then a future Game of the Week lock at Denver on Nov. 17.
6. Indianapolis at Houston, 8:30 p.m.: The Colts are well on their way to winning the AFC South championship. The Texans have taken it the last two years. This game could be the passing of the torch.
8. Atlanta at Carolina, 1 p.m.: Before the season, you wouldn't have thought Carolina would be the surging team and the Falcons would be playing for little more than pride.
8. New Orleans at New York Jets, 1 p.m.: Can the Jets slow down Saints quarterback Drew Brees? The Jets need to play better than last week, when Cincinnati's Andy Dalton threw for five touchdowns against them.
9. Minnesota at Dallas, 1 p.m.: At some point the Vikings should just have a fan contest, with the winner getting to be that week's starting quarterback.
10. Baltimore at Cleveland, 4:25 p.m.: The Browns can really put the defending Super Bowl champs, who are 3-4, on the ropes by handing them another loss.
11. Tennessee at St. Louis, 1 p.m.: The Rams almost beat the Seahawks on Monday, but it's also worth noting they scored just three field goals and Kellen Clemens is still their starting quarterback.
12: Philadelphia at Oakland, 4:05 p.m.: It's a good thing Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor is exciting, because there's no good reason to watch a game involving the Eagles.
13. Tampa Bay at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.: The Buccaneers are 0-7, and have to go face a good Seahawks team that hasn't lost at home in two seasons. Good luck with that.
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