Patriots, Steelers battle for ‘Team of Decade’ title

The on-field skirmishes between Rodney Harrison and Jerome Bettis are finished.

But both retired stars will gladly engage in a war or words when asked about one of the NFL’s hottest topics entering the 2009 season: Should New England or Pittsburgh be crowned the unofficial “Team of the Decade” if the Steelers repeat as Super Bowl champions?

“Tell him hands down it’s the Patriots,” Harrison boasted in a telephone interview.

Countered a laughing Bettis: “Being brainwashed in the (Bill) Belichick system, you expect him to say that.”

Although such ribbing is good-natured, the strong feelings both have about their former teams is understandable. Harrison was a standout Patriots safety and leader on two of the franchise’s three championship squads this decade. Bettis — the NFL’s fifth all-time leading rusher — played 10 of his 13 NFL seasons in Pittsburgh. He also was a key cog in the ground attack that helped the 2005 Steelers win Super Bowl XL before retiring.

Bettis acknowledges Pittsburgh must match New England’s three Super Bowl titles since 2000 to make a legitimate “Team of the Decade” boast. If that happens, Harrison and Bettis both have strong arguments.

New England has a better overall record in the past nine years. The Patriots have an NFL-best mark of 102-42 in the regular season and 14-3 in the playoffs, including victories over Pittsburgh in the 2001 and 2004 AFC title games. The Steelers are 94-49-1 and 10-4 respectively. New England’s six division titles also edge Pittsburgh’s five in that span.

Until February 2008, New England was considered a “Team of the Decade” shoo-in like predecessors Dallas (1990s), San Francisco (1980s) and Pittsburgh (1970s) — even after the Spygate controversy. The 2007 Patriots became the first team to enter a Super Bowl with an 18-0 record since the NFL adopted a 16-game regular-season schedule in 1978. And in its championship seasons of 2003 and 2004, New England strung together a league-record 21-game winning streak that ended at the hands of — you guessed it — Pittsburgh.

“To accomplish two things that have never been done before speaks volumes,” said Harrison, who played with New England from 2003 to 2008 after spending his first nine seasons in San Diego.

But in a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” sports culture, the Steelers are starting to nudge New England from the spotlight. New England’s hopes for a perfect 2007 campaign were dashed when the Patriots were upset by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. By missing the playoffs last year despite an 11-5 record, New England’s streak without another Lombardi Trophy reached four seasons.

Pittsburgh has won two NFL titles in that span, including last year’s nail-biter victory over Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII.

“To be the team of the decade, you’ve got to be complete from start to finish,” Bettis said.

There are common threads between the Steelers and Patriots besides winning. Each has big-time quarterbacks (New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger). Both franchises also thrived under likely Hall of Fame coaches in Belichick and Bill Cowher. Belichick rebuilt New England from a 5-11 squad in his first season in 2000 to a Super Bowl winner the following year. Cowher coached the Steelers from 1992 to 2006 before retiring and handing the reins to Mike Tomlin. At age 36, Tomlin became the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl title last season.

“I look at the Steelers as almost a replica of the Patriots,” Harrison said. “They just win games. They’re always thinking about team first. They’re not flashy. They have talented guys but not a bunch of ‘me’ guys like T.O. (Buffalo wide receiver Terrell Owens) and Pacman (Jones).”

The Steelers and Patriots have enjoyed a decade of dominance through different methodologies. Pittsburgh’s roster remains built almost entirely through the draft. Belichick — who has final say over New England’s personnel moves — is much more active in trades and free-agent signings. Such maneuvering has netted players like Harrison, running back Corey Dillon, linebacker Junior Seau, and wide receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

“Bill has brought in a bunch of guys that everyone considered old and washed up and gotten them to play together and win,” said Harrison, who was 30 years old when released by San Diego in the 2003 offseason. “That formula is pretty special.”

Not surprisingly, Harrison and Bettis rate New England and Pittsburgh as their respective AFC frontrunners entering this season. Harrison’s rationale stems from extra motivation for New England combined with the pressure Pittsburgh will face as defending champion.

“Normally for teams coming off a Super Bowl win, a sense of complacency kicks in,” Harrison said. “Everyone is gunning for you, so it’s hard to replicate last season. Pittsburgh can’t sneak up on anyone. They’re going to get everyone’s best game whether it’s the best team or worst.

“The Patriots are hungry after missing the playoffs. A lot of guys are really upset over there. They had a good offseason by adding a lot of veterans. The thing they have to watch for is keeping Tom healthy.”

Harrison also acknowledges New England has defensive questions after significant personnel upheaval since 2008. Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi retired. Defensive end Richard Seymour — a five-time Pro Bowl selection since being drafted by New England in 2001 — was traded Sunday to Oakland. Mike Vrabel was dealt to Kansas City in February and fellow linebacker Junior Seau wasn’t re-signed. Those five players combined had 68 NFL seasons of experience as well as exhaustive knowledge of New England’s complex defense that Belichick now has to try and replace.

“Is there a leadership void? Yes,” Harrison admits. “Of course they will be missed. But there’s a lot of talent and other leadership on this team. The young guys are going to have to step up.”

Pittsburgh doesn’t have that concern. The Steelers enter Thursday night’s season-opener against visiting Tennessee with 10 of 11 starters returning from the NFL’s top-ranked defense in 2008.

“The Patriots’ defense is going to be good, but it’s not as dominant as the Steelers’,” Bettis said. “Defense wins championships.”

So do the Steelers and Patriots. At least that’s something Bettis and Harrison can agree upon.