The Steelers and New England Patriots will find themselves in a familiar spot Sunday at Heinz Field, playing each other with the AFC's No. 1 seed on the line, but does it really matter in the long run who wins?
Nearly inexplicably, the Steelers have risen from the shambles of a 35-7 opening loss at Baltimore and a .500 record after four games to the second-best record in the conference at 5-2. Typically, the Patriots are tops at 5-1.
And, while the Steelers may be 1-6 against quarterback Tom Brady, they have managed to get around the Patriots without having to go through them in the playoffs to win two Super Bowl titles since New England most recently won a Lombardi Trophy seven seasons ago. They finished second in the AFC to the Patriots last season after losing at home to them 39-26, yet they again reached the Super Bowl and New England did not.
In 2004, it did not matter that the once-beaten Steelers upset the unbeaten Patriots at home at mid-season because they then lost to them in the AFC title game at Heinz Field for the second time in four seasons.
So, while the game Sunday ultimately might determine the conference's top seed, there is no historical reason to believe it will determine much else.
"It's October!" coach Mike Tomlin said, fairly wincing Tuesday when asked about the importance of securing the inside track on a playoff seed at the halfway point of the season. "We are just trying to win week to week and keep pace with the elite and put ourselves in position to be considered in that conversation. Those things will sort themselves out. I truly believe that.
"We like to stay focused on things that are in our control, and that's our preparation and, ultimately, our play this week. When you start talking about playoff seedings and things of that nature, particularly at this point in the season, you are scoreboard watching. That's not going to be our bag.
"We are going to see enough quality teams over the rest of this season to deal with a lot of those things firsthand, and that is really how we prefer to look at it."
In truth, the following game at Heinz Field may be more important to the Steelers playoff fortunes than this one. That will be another showdown with Baltimore, which dropped to 4-2 after a stunning loss Monday night in Jacksonville, Fla.
Even Tomlin acknowledged that it is not the same when the Steelers face the Patriots as it is when they play their rivalry games against the Ravens, despite the fact New England denied them Super Bowl trips in the '01 and '04 seasons.
"Many of our guys were not a part of this history when it started, because you are talking about 2001 and 2004. So, it's not similar in that way. We play Baltimore twice a year, sometimes three times a year over the last three to five years. So it's different from that standpoint. I am not going to assume anything. I am going to educate our guys about this matchup and this football team because it is different in that way."
Wes Welker not only is New England's best receiver, he leads the NFL with an average of 130.8 yards per game. But do not expect Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor to follow the usual plan that has him cover the other team's best.
Welker often lines up in the slot, and Taylor covers receivers who line up wide.
"As I sit here right now, I am not comfortable with saying that Ike is going to follow him down-in and down-out," Tomlin said. "That might be a little bit out of Ike's comfort zone.
"This guy spends a lot of time in interior formations at the No. 2 position, No. 3 position and slot formations. Ike is an outside corner, so I am not ready at this juncture to even say that this is going to be an element of this thing."
Since he caught two passes in the ninth game of his rookie season in 1998, Hines Ward never has failed to catch at least one in 186 consecutive games, the third-longest streak in NFL history.
That ended Nov. 14, 2010, when he left the game against New England early with a concussion without catching a pass. Sunday, Ward may not play against the Patriots at all because he has a sprained ankle.
"We are going to look hard this week at Hines Ward in terms of his participation," Tomlin said. "We will let that be our guide in terms of his readiness."
The Steelers are better prepared to deal with Ward's possible absence this season than they were the previous time they played New England. Antwaan Randle El filled in and missed a pass wide open over the middle that might have made a difference in the game. Randle El obviously was at the end of the road and was surpassed by rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown on the depth chart.
The more experienced Sanders and Brown have helped to boost the Steelers passing game this season with their production, and the team also added veteran possession receiver Jerricho Cotchery.
Casey Hampton, who missed the past three games with a shoulder injury, is on schedule to practice today and might play Sunday.
"We will see where that participation takes us," Tomlin said. "We would get him back into the fold. That would be a nice shot in the arm for us up front on defense."
He said four players who have not been playing are "status quo." That group includes linebackers James Harrison and Jason Worilds, defensive lineman Chris Hoke and offensive guard Doug Legursky. Also rookie cornerback Curtis Brown has had back spasms, and the Steelers are unsure how those will affect him this week.