The blemish on a defensive résumé that included the N.F.L.’s fewest points allowed was that New England had conquered quarterbacks of meager stock — Bryce Petty, Brock Osweiler and others. Here in this moment, though, was Roethlisberger, who assumed that he and tight end Jesse James had just pulled the Steelers to within 5 points of the Patriots on a touchdown pass. But the play would be overruled by video review, as James was stopped just short of the end zone on a reception.
Still, first-and-goal at the New England 1.
Stuffed on the first play, DeAngelo Williams — playing in place of Le’Veon Bell, who had come out with a groin injury — took the handoff again and encountered a 320-pound rookie defensive lineman named Vincent Valentine before Williams could take one step.
The resulting 3-yard loss knocked the Steelers back even farther and helped force them to settle for a field goal.
“That yard is so small,” New England safety Duron Harmon said. “You would think the Pittsburgh Steelers would be able to get that yard.”
The Steelers did not score again until 3 minutes 36 seconds remained.
After the Patriots neutralized Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown, and undoubtedly benefited from Bell’s absence, it seemed only appropriate that their next, and final, challenge would involve striving to contain the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5 in Houston. The same Falcons who have scored 80 points the last two weeks and, after thrashing both Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, have now ousted two Super-Bowl-winning quarterbacks this month.
Next up for the Falcons is a third decorated quarterback: Brady, who on Sunday set a franchise record for passing yardage in a postseason game and completed throws to nine receivers, none named Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski, the Patriots’ superlative tight end, has missed seven straight games with a back injury that required surgery, and he will be unavailable for the Super Bowl. But his absence — until he was shown on the video screen, watching from a suite — has not been noteworthy. Not with Julian Edelman shredding the Steelers’ defense underneath, and Hogan torching it long.
The Steelers filed off the field much as they had 10 weeks earlier, saddled with a fourth consecutive loss, glum and confounded. They did not recognize the team they had become: disjointed, diluted, lacking an identity. From the tumult came a few sage voices. Then, a rallying cry.
“We’ve been here before,” Roethlisberger had told his teammates. “It’s no time to panic.”
The Steelers had not lost since, but then again, they confronted the same undercurrent of skepticism that trailed New England: that their defense, however potent, remained untested.
Tested plenty on Sunday, the Steelers forced two punts — and no turnovers — on New England’s first 10 drives.
That would not be enough against a Patriots team that had squashed Houston by 18 points a week earlier, then reacted with the dejection of a child sent to a timeout corner. The expectations are that high for New England.
Given the Steelers’ and Patriots’ pedigrees — with what is now 17 Super Bowl appearances between them and 10 championships — it is remarkable they had not met in the playoffs since Roethlisberger’s rookie season, 2004.
But their rivalry has endured, and intensified by the Spygate scandal and by Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin’s fury two seasons ago when his headset just happened to malfunction during a game here.
“Competitive animosity,” Tomlin said a few days ago.
Whether it is jealousy or skulduggery, the Patriots tend to incite that sort of feeling. They also do not care, not even a bit, how others perceive them. They are football’s metronome, always scoring, winning, celebrating.
After the game, tight end Martellus Bennett danced with the Patriots’ cheerleaders and did snow angels with his daughter in the celebratory confetti.
In the locker room, he extolled the virtues of his hometown, Houston, and said he was going to go home and make his favorite cake — yellow with chocolate icing — and write, “You’re Awesome” on it.
“I’ll probably regret it tomorrow,” Bennett said, “because I’ve got to make sure I make weight.”