Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers prepares to throw during a game with the New England Patriots in the 1st half at Gillette Stadium on November 3, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
(Jim Rogash/Getty Images North America)
Legitimate has become a subjective designation. There’s a lot of dispute these days in this country about whose victories merit legitimacy. The Patriots are going to dodge any of that divisive debate, thanks to the outcome of the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan are still firing away. That means the legitimacy of the Patriots’ fifth Lombardi Trophy can’t be questioned if it comes to fruition.
The weekend was a win for the Patriots and their fans. The Patriots dispatched the Houston Texans, despite a lackluster offensive performance, to advance to a sixth straight AFC Championship Game, and the remaining postseason field gives them the chance to silence any defensive detractors.
The Tomato Cans are on the shelf from here on out. There are no more free passes for the Patriots, just capable passers. There’s no more complaining that the Patriots haven’t played anyone or that fate falls at the feet of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
If the Patriots beat Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner, in Sunday’s AFC title game and then take down Rodgers, who has a ring, or Matt Ryan, author of an MVP-caliber season, in Super Bowl LI there are no qualifiers or caveats left to discuss. It’s as legit as it gets.
The biggest knock against the Patriots and their stingy defense to this point is not how they’ve played, but who they’ve played. Their level of competition, or lack thereof, this season is a sticking point for the team that allowed the fewest points per game in the NFL (15.6).
Winners of eight straight and 15 games in 17 tries, the Patriots have only played two starting quarterbacks whose teams finished in the top 10 in passing offense. (Roethlisberger missed the Patriots’ first matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 23 with a torn meniscus.) They went 1-1 in a pair of agita-inducing games
Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks lit them up in a 31-24 loss. Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals lost when their field goal kicker missed a potential game-winner with 41 seconds left, as the Patriots prevailed 23-21.
Let’s be honest. There have been a lot of weeks this season that the best quarterback the Patriots faced was Jimmy Garoppolo in practice.
There are no more Bryce Pettys, Matt Moores, and Brock Osweilers awaiting the Sons of Belichick. There’s not even a Trevor Siemian-type serviceable QB. It’s pedigreed passers the rest of the way.
All of their potential remaining roadblocks -- the Steelers, the Atlanta Falcons, and the Green Bay Packers finished in the top seven in the NFL in passing offense. The Falcons (third) and Steelers (tied for fifth) finished in the top five.
Houston had a problem. It couldn’t score. That’s not an issue for the Steelers, Packers, and Falcons.
They all finished in the top 10 in scoring offense; Atlanta led the league, averaging 33.8 points per game. The Packers finished fourth behind the Patriots at 27 points per game. The Steelers were tied for 10th (24.9).
The competition upgrade starts Sunday at Gillette Stadium with a visit from the Steelers, who have won nine straight games. The only time they’ve scored fewer than 24 points during that stretch was Sunday night’s 18-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs to advance to the AFC title game.
The Steelers boast Big Ben, wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has surpassed 100 yards receiving in his last four postseason games, and running back Le’Veon Bell, who has broken the Steelers’ postseason, single-game rushing mark in back-to-back weeks with 167 yards and 170 yards.
This is a far different Steelers team than the one the Patriots defeated, 27-16, back in October. In that game, Roethlisberger’s backup, Landry Jones, threw for 281 yards. This will be the best offense the Patriots have faced all season.
With Peyton Manning retired, Brady v. Roethlisberger is what passes for an AFC quarterback showdown. This will be only the second time they’ve matched up in the playoffs and the first since Roethlisberger’s rookie season of 2004.
Big Ben is 3-6 all-time against the Patriots, including the playoffs. He has completed 61.3 percent of his passes and thrown 19 touchdowns and 9 interceptions against New England, but he has never beaten Brady in Foxborough.
Roethlisberger’s lone win at Gillette Stadium in four tries came in 2008, when Brady was out with a torn ACL.
This is going to look a little different than Osweiler struggling to identify open receivers and throwing the ball with the accuracy of a water sprinkler.
In his last four games against the Patriots, dating back to 2010, Roethlisberger has topped 300 yards each time and thrown 10 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
If the Patriots get past the Steelers, then either the red-hot Rodgers or Matty Ice awaits.
Rodgers is playing on an otherworldly level right now. It feels like he can telekinetically guide the ball wherever he wants, and if he gets it last you’re losing. He has thrown 21 touchdowns and 1 interception during Green Bay’s eight-game winning streak.
Ryan, the Boston College alum, is knocking on the door of the elite QB club. He is a popular MVP pick after throwing for 38 touchdowns (against 7 interceptions) and nearly 5,000 yards this season while completing 69.9 percent of his passes.
Only Rodgers threw more TD passes during the regular season.
Beating two of these three quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks would be an accomplishment any time, but doing it in the most important games of the year would provide the Patriots with a ready-made rebuttal to any schedule-related criticism about how they reached the NFL’s final four.
The Patriots are about to get some legitimate competition and a legitimate chance to bury the degree-of-difficulty argument once and for all.