Troy Brown returns a punt for a touchdown in the 2001 AFC Championship game (Patriots.com)
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are quick to point out that their 36 playoff wins are the most in NFL history. That’s two more victories than second-place Dallas and six more than fifth-place New England.
However, the Steelers amassed 14 of those wins during the franchise’s glory days between 1970-79, when they won four Super Bowls in a six-year span.
In recent years, however, the Patriots are the NFL’s most dominant franchise. Since 2000 and the hiring of Bill Belichick as their coach, the Patriots are 23-9 in postseason play with four Lombardi Trophies on their mantle.
Though the Steelers have also enjoyed great success in the new century, including three Super Bowl appearances, they are a distant 15-8. Two of those losses came against New England in AFC championship games in 2001 and ‘04.
Sunday night’s AFC title game will be the Steelers’ sixth since 2000 and the Patriots’ sixth in a row.
A look at the past Steelers- Patriots AFC Championship games:
2001 AFC Championship:Patriots 24, Steelers 17
At Heinz Field, Jan. 27, 2002
After cutting an early 18-point deficit to just four in the third quarter, Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in the final three minutes as the Steelers, 10-point favorites, were stunned by New England.
Jerome Bettis returned after being sidelined the previous eight weeks with a groin injury but carried nine times for just 8 yards.
Former Patriots starting QB Drew Bledsoe, who lost his starting job in late September with a punctured lung, replaced Tom Brady in the second quarter to lead New England to victory. Bledsoe completed 10 of 21 for 102 yards and one TD. Troy Brown returned a punt 55 yards for a TD and blocked a field goal that Antwan Harris returned 49 yards for a TD.
A week later, Brady and Aliquippa native Ty Law led New England to a 20-17 upset win over the defending champion St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
2004 AFC Championship: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
At Heinz Field, Jan. 23, 2005
Led by rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense, the Steelers were riding high. Pittsburgh had a 15-game winning streak, including a 34-20 win over New England on Oct. 31.
This time, New England scored early and often, taking a 24-3 lead into the half. In the coldest game in Heinz Field history, Roethlisberger cooled off on the big stage. The 22-year-old completed 14 of 24 for 226 yards but was intercepted three times.
Tom Brady threw for 207 yards, 116 of them to Deion Branch, who scored on a 60-yard reception in the first quarter.
Jerome Bettis, who rushed for 100-or-more yards the previous three games, was held to 64 yards on 17 carries and hinted after the game he was leaning toward retirement.
Two weeks after beating Pittsburgh, the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years by beating the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 in Super Bowl XXXIX
After talking Bettis into playing one more season, Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to its fifth Lombardi Trophy the following season.