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Move over Patriots, Steelers now the one

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  February 2, 2009 12:13 PM

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In the comparison of dynasties, for lack of a better word, there is no trophy presentation and no parade. There is no right answer. There is only subjectivity, purely for the sake of argument.

But at this stage, isn’t it time to wonder if the Pittsburgh Steelers have supplanted the Patriots as the elite franchise in the NFL?

With their 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in scintillating Super Bowl XLIII Sunday night, the Steelers now have two titles in the last four years. The Patriots have none. Pittsburgh has a playmaking quarterback, a bright young coach and a suffocating defense under one of the most respected ownerships in league history. There is no reason to think any of that will change in the immediate future.

Like it or not, that makes the Steelers the new team to beat.

Before the most loyal New Englanders flip their lids over something that is, in the end, trivial, let’s at least try to be honest with ourselves. In the NFL, success is measured in Lombardi Trophies. Like hotel and movie ratings, the more symbols the better. The Steelers now have six Lombardi icons next to their team name, more than any franchise in league history. In the short term and the long, no team has had a greater run of success.

Now, if you want to start having arguments about the team of the decade, that is a different matter.

But at this precise moment in time, using the last four years as a sample size, the Steelers do not merely have a leg up on the league.

They have two.

The regular season? Please. Let’s not resort to such deceptive tactics in an attempt to claim the Patriots' superiority. Since the Patriots’ last championship -- secured with a 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles Feb. 6, 2005 -- they are a sterling 49-15 in the regular season. That might mean something in an argument concerning the Steelers were it not for the fact that Indianapolis Colts have the Patriots beat on two fronts (51-13, one Super Bowl title in that stretch). By contrast, the Steelers are a relatively understated 41-23, though they own those two Lombardis.

Let’s look at this another way: Using the same time frame -- four years -- the New York Yankees won more games than any team in baseball from 2004-07, posting an aggregate mark of 387-261, 12 games better than the Red Sox (375-273). The Red Sox claimed two World Series titles to the Yankees’ none, however, leading to the suggestion that the Sox were the dynasty in the making.

Here in New England, who in their right minds would suggest that the Yankees of 2004-07 were more successful than the Sox? Who would even hint at it? The bottom line is that the Red Sox won titles (plural) and the Yankees won nothing, and there are certain markets in professional sports (like this one) where all that matters are the championships.

Does that mean the Patriots had a bad year? No, no, no. Quite the contrary. Minus Tom Brady, the 2008 Patriots went 11-5 thanks largely to the emergence of Matt Cassel and the continued mastery of Bill Belichick. Given the Pats’ issues this year, particularly in the secondary, it is a wonder they did so well. We can wonder all we want about how Pats might have fared in the postseason, but this fact remains inarguable:

In their only meeting with the Steelers in this recently completed NFL season -- at home, in a nationally televised affair on Sunday -- the Pats got vaporized by a 33-10 score. A New England offense that had managed 1,041 yards in the preceding two weeks managed just 267 against the Steelers, who forced five turnovers and sacked Cassel five times while holding him to 19 of 39 passing.

Minus that game, in the seven remaining contests over the final half of the season, Cassel had 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions while going 153 of 246, a completion rate of 62.2 percent.

So, in retrospect, did the Patriots offense really peak in December?

Or did the Pats just get shut down by the Steelers on the final day of November?

With regard to Brady’s absence, we all understand the magnitude. We also know that injuries are part of the game. The Steelers similarly could make every argument that their momentum was derailed by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident following Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl win in 2006. The Steelers stumbled through an 8-8 season the next year and missed the playoffs, though they have since made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, including this one.

Along the way, the Steelers have made decisions the way the Patriots have, shrewdly and devoid of emotional bias. In that way, the two organizations are probably more alike than many New Englanders would care to admit. In the last several years, the Steelers have said farewell to a group that includes Plaxico Burress, Joey Porter and Alan Faneca, among others. They have continued to win just the same. James Harrison was signed as an uindrafted free agent. Santonio Holmes was added through the draft.

In the end, what all of this means is that the Patriots have some work to do again, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Every so often, getting knocked down a peg can be a very productive experience. More often than not, it prods you to reevaluate and reassess, to recognize just how much needs to be invested in order to be successful. And if someone else happens to pass you by in the process, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

After all, it never hurts to have something to shoot for.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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