You never know when it is the last time. The sting of a last smoky scotch. The sweet separation of a final kiss. The last goodbye to a significant soul. "Tempus fugit," as I once saw scribbled on a bathroom stall. And gravity always wins. Yet despite these Immutable Laws of Existence we still take so many moments for granted, unaware of The Final Time.
So here is the best advice that I can lend you heading into the Pittsburgh-New England AFC Championship Game: savor every moment.
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Enjoy the dark, howling snowscape of Foxboro in winter's grip. Enjoy Tom Brady's goofy, childlike exuberance after slinging another laser for a touchdown. Enjoy Ben Roethlisberger's gutsy hobble as he escapes the pocket to make a play. Soak in the obnoxious fans, the sheer desperation of the stakes, and the unsettling nervousness of every third down play. Because the reality is that we don't know how many more of these epic matchupswe are going to get.
The AFC Championship Game kicks off at 6:40 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 22. The Patriots are hosting and the game is available to watch on CBS. New England has been installed as a 6.0-point favorite , and the total in this game is 50.5.
Last year we, the general football-loving public, were gifted one final Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady championship game. Whether you are a supporter of either, Manning vs. Brady has been the defining football rivalry this century and has provided some of the best sports moments and memories for a generation of fans, including last year's thrilling conclusion.
This year we could be staring down the final Brady vs. Big Ben playoff matchup ever as well. Brady will turn 40 years old this August. Roethlisberger will be 35. Brady looks like he could play another two or three years, but you never know. And Roethlisberger has more wear and tear than his age belies due to his hard-charging style both on and off the field. These stars may never align like this again.
It is not just about Brady and Big Ben. This game features two of the most hallowed franchises in sports. Pittsburgh is one of the defining organizations in pro football, with a legacy forged through toughness and titles. New England is not far behind and the Patriots dynasty of the last 15 seasons is unlike anything we've ever seen in the game.
And here they are. Two champions, fueled by pride and a genuine, jealousy-laden dislike for one another, take the field for another defining clash.
Brady's first AFC Championship Game came against these very Steelers back in 2002. Since that game - and counting this weekend - either Brady or Roethlisberger (or both) has started in the AFC Championship Game an astounding 14 times in 16 seasons. This will be Brady's 11th AFC Championship Game. (Think about that for a second.) It will be Roethlisberger's fifth. That mind-boggling frequency is a big reason why it has been so easy to take their presence for granted.
More recently, this is the third meeting between these two foes in the last 17 months. New England won last season's opener 28-21 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. (Antonio Brown scored in the final seconds to give the Steelers a backdoor cover.) The two teams met again in Week 7 this year and again the Patriots claimed victory, 27-16. That was the third straight victory for the Pats in this series (they snowplowed the Steelers 55-31 in November of 2013) and improved their mark against the Steelers to 4-1 this decade.
However, LeVeon Bell missed last year's opener. And the Steelers were without Roethlisberger for the Week 7 affair. Pittsburgh actually outgained the Patriots in each of those losses. And this will be the first time that New England has had to face the full force of Pittsburgh's killer B's: Big Ben, Bell and Brown. Add in the Steelers' resurgent defense, which, discounting Week 17's glorified exhibition feel, has allowed just one opponent to score more than 20 points the past nine weeks, and this will be the best Pittsburgh team that New England has tangled with in the past two seasons.
Both teams are smoking hot. The Steelers have won nine straight games and are 8-1 against the spread since Thanksgiving week. The Patriots have won eight straight and have been on a war tour all season, posting an absolutely amazing 14-3 ATS mark while wrecking everything in their path.
In terms of handicapping this affair, you have to pick your poison. On one hand you would be betting against the Patriots, at home, in the playoffs. New England is 16-3 straight up and 13-6 against the spread with Brady under center in those circumstances. New England is 26-10 ATS in their last 36 home games overall and 4-1 ATS in their last five home playoff games. They are a juggernaut and have been the most profitable wager in football - by a mile - over the last 15 years.
Also, not only is Brady 7-3 in title games, but he is also 2-0 against the Steelers, beating them in 2002 and in 2005.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh has absolutely no fear. They aren't fazed or afraid of the Patriots. Not at all. The Steelers are as hard as a coffin nail. Their toughness isn't a put-on; it is the foundation of their franchise. And they have backed that up with a 14-4 ATS mark in their last 18 games played in January. This will be their third straight playoff game and their second straight playoff road game. But Pittsburgh has momentum, talent and toughness, a powerful trifecta this time of year.
Over the next several days everyone and their sister will have some "X-factor" that will determine who wins this game. "The running game will be key!" "Front seven pressure will tell the story!" "Special teams could decide this one." It's all nonsense. This one is a clash of titans. It won't be won by stratagem. It is a test of wills.
Savor it. Because someday we will all tell our grandchildren about these sports legends. And this game could be one of the tales we tell.
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Read more articles by Robert Ferringo
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