Tide is turning on storied rivalry between Eagles, Steelers

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. (Chris Szagola/AP)

There are numerous rivalries across the NFL. Some are based on geography and history, while others are born out of divisional and conference play. You know which ones they are and we all have our favourites.

With certain NFL rivalries, they are more intense when teams are at their apex. Many will claim that the “the league is better” when Team A and Team B are both good, and there’s no question that’s true. Dolphins-Bills, Saints-Falcons and Packers-Bears are all rivalries based on history or geography that work tremendously well when both teams are fighting for something important.  

But there’s really only one rivalry that checks off the boxes for geography, history (as in it goes back decades), and would be an utterly-fascinating Super Bowl match-up. It divides loyalties down an entire state, and not just a city. And unlike the Cincinnati-Cleveland rivalry, it features two franchises that actually have done their fair share of winning in this century.

The first time a Philadelphia NFL team played a Pittsburgh NFL team was in 1933. Back then, the latter was known as the Pittsburgh Pirates. Original, huh? Even then, Pittsburgh’s team was owned by the Rooney family (as it is now), but they only became the “Steelers” in 1940. Every year between then and the 1967 season, the Steelers and Eagles resided in the same division and played each other twice a season, regardless of how many games were on the schedule (by 1967, it was 14 and stayed that way until 1978, when the current 16-game season was adopted).

Both Pennsylvania teams were tried and true NFL “originals”, but once the NFL-AFL merger happened prior to the 1970 season, the Eagles-Steelers rivalry took a massive hit. Pittsburgh was moved into the AFC’s Central Division along with the Cleveland Browns to join the Cincinnati Bengals and (the AFL original) Houston Oilers. The Eagles, meanwhile, found themselves in the NFC East with the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants and the Washington NFL team.

Remarkably, the Eagles and Steelers would only play a mere four times between the 1970 season and 1990.  Terry Bradshaw had 168 career NFL starts, but only three of them against the Eagles!

But it’s been proven that the teams don’t need to play often to enjoy their battle for Pennsylvania’s NFL bragging rights.  That brings us to modern-day NFL, where we got an eye-popping performance from Eagles rookie QB Carson Wentz in a 34-3 mauling of Pittsburgh in Week 3 of last season.

Now, that was as good as it got for the Eagles as they went 4-9 in their remaining 13 games. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, recovered nicely from this smackdown, but it took a while. They lost four of the next six games before rolling off a remarkable nine-game winning streak. That includes playoff wins over the Dolphins and Chiefs, before Philly suffered a 36-17 defeat at the hands of the Patriots.

Although the Steelers in the Big Ben era really do dwarf their state rivals in terms of in-season accomplishments (2-1 in Super Bowls since 2000, as opposed to Philadelphia’s 0-1 record), it’d be difficult for fans of either outfit to complain about their success.

Since 2000, the Eagles have made the postseason an impressive 10-of-17 seasons with an overall 10-10 playoff record.  Only six NFL teams have won more playoff games this century, but of course, one such team would be the Steelers.  They’ve made the playoffs 11-of-17 years, but sport a much more sparkling 15-9 postseason record.  The Steelers are 3-3 in AFC title games, while Philadelphia is a dreadful 1-4 on the NFC side, and that makes all the difference in the world, quite obviously.

Despite all that, I’m not the only one who sees a very stiff breeze headed in Philadelphia’s favour. It’s not just about recent results either, even though Pittsburgh was utterly embarrassed at home by Jacksonville last Sunday, while Philadelphia racked up another impressive road performance Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers to leap up to a 5-1 record.  Remember: they already beat Washington on the road in the season opener, and were leading 13-10 headed into the fourth quarter against the seemingly-invincible Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead before the game turned on them.

Pittsburgh’s season has been quite the soap opera with a Le’Veon Bell training camp holdout, and the grousing and complaining from Antonio Brown (mere months after he enraged Steelers management by posting live video of his teammates and head coach mocking the soon-to-be-engaged New England Patriots prior to the AFC Championship Game).

Then, of course, there are the obvious issues with Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben is grinding it out, that much is obvious. And after hinting at retirement in a couple offseason radio interviews, then snappily suggesting that “maybe he doesn’t have it anymore” after the Jacksonville debacle (in which he threw five interceptions, including two pick-six returns for the ball-hawking Jags secondary), it’s obvious that this isn’t just going to go away.

Roethlisberger will be 36 this offseason and though his durability is unfairly maligned by some, he’s dropping enough bread crumbs in the forest for us to wonder if he will play much longer.  My educated guess is that he announces next year will be his last season and he may even do that before this one is over.  

Despite all the drama, and the fact the locker room may now need a different voice than Mike Tomlin, understand that the Pittsburgh Steelers wrote the book on loyalty–no matter what you think of the Patriots, San Antonio Spurs or take your pick from a few NHL teams. Tomlin’s only the third coach the Steelers have had since 1967. No other pro sports team can claim that in North America.  

But if the writing is on the wall for Tomlin after a decade as Steelers head coach, and Big Ben doesn’t have long left in the proverbial gas tank, then just turn the state of Pennsylvania over to Philadelphia.

Despite all the upheaval at head coach recently, Doug Pederson couldn’t have landed his first NFL head coaching gig at a better team. Pederson was coaching a high school team in West Virginia just nine years ago, and now has what looks like a transcendent quarterback in Wentz to grow old(er) with.

Wentz is real, and indeed, spectacular. Give me him over any other quarterback drafted since Andrew Luck, and to me, it’s not close, with respect to a bunch of guys who will elevate in the league and do their fair share of winning.

As for the talent around Wentz, it’s also really good. There’s tremendous balance on both sides of the ball. So far this season, LeGarrette Blount has defied the concept that you’re close to the end line as a running back in this league if you’re over 30.  Zach Ertz may be the best tight end in the sport not named Gronkowski or Kelce. Both Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor are similar yet distinct threats in the Wentz passing attack.

On the other side, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was an animal Thursday night chasing Cam Newton around, hitting him for sacks, forcing an interception and errant throws on the run (Newton’s inaccuracy doing that is always going to be his undoing, really).

I also think linebacker Nigel Bradham has brought his level up remarkably this season, after some rough spots in his 2016 debut season with the Eagles. Now he’s become another guy Buffalo Bills fans watch on television and shake their heads at, wondering why he didn’t look that good for them.

Bottom line: though the Steelers have had a better or equal record than the Eagles in nine of the past 12 seasons, those days appear to be over. I still expect Pittsburgh to host a playoff game in January, but only because it looks like the AFC North is (surprisingly) the weakest division in football … yes, even worse than the AFC South.  

But the days of the Steelers being the more-talked about team in Pennsylvania appear to be over.