The New England Patriots dominated the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout Tom Brady's 20-year career in Foxboro, including three wins in the AFC Championship Game (2001, 2004, 2016).
It's hard for some Steelers to admit they played poorly in all three of those matchups, so they have to resort to accusing the Patriots of cheating.
The latest example came this week.
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Ex-Steelers running back Jerome Bettis joined his former teammate Ben Roethlisberger's "Footbahlin with Ben Roethlisberger" podcast, and the subject of the 2004 AFC title game came up. Roethlisberger essentially blamed his horrible performance, including two interceptions (one was a pick-6), on the Patriots cheating. Bettis strongly agreed that the Patriots cheated.
Here's that exchange:
Bettis: "If your ass hadn't thrown two interceptions, we'd be in the Super Bowl!"
Roethlisberger: "To be fair, the Patriots cheated."
Bettis: "For sure they did. There's not even a question in my mind."
Bettis did provide one example that he thinks shows the Patriots were cheating. It happened during a fourth-and-1 play late in the first quarter. Bettis tried to run through the left side of the offensive line but got stuffed and fumbled the ball. Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel recovered. Tom Brady connected with Deion Branch for a 60-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the ensuing New England drive to put the Patriots up 10-0.
Bettis claims the Patriots saw the Steelers' offensive line coach, Russ Grimm, make a hand-slapping motion that meant they would run a counter play on fourth-and-1. He also alleged the Patriots called a timeout at that moment to talk about it.
"It was fourth-and-1. They called a timeout," Bettis said. "Coach (made a hand signal), this meant counter. They saw this (hand signal), they called timeout. Who normally goes to the sideline on a timeout? The defensive tackles right? They told the nose guard, (Ted) Washington, they pulled him to the sideline. Big 400-pound guy, he doesn't wanna go the sideline and come all the way back. What does he want to go to the sideline for? They're yelling, making him go the sideline and come back.
"Then, we run the play, he loops into the hole, Washington does, they stop us on fourth down. That's a critical play in the game. They had our signs, and they called a timeout to get them ready for that play because they knew it was coming. No question in my mind. I remember vividly because I thought, 'Why is this big dude going to the sideline?'"
The conversation above begins around the 1:17:00 mark of the video below:
Fact checkers were out in full force after Bettis' comments began to gain some traction.
First of all, Ted Washington, the alleged noseguard, wasn't on the 2004 Patriots. The only year he played in New England was 2003. Also, the Patriots never called timeout before this fourth-and-1 play that Bettis is referencing. Anyone can check the official gamebook and see that. And everyone knew Bettis was going to get the ball. Why would the Steelers not give the ball to their 250-pound future Hall of Fame running back when they only need one yard for a first down?
Bettis clearly is still upset the Steelers lost that game, one in which they turned the ball over four (!) times. Pittsburgh went 15-1 in the regular season, had already beaten the Patriots at Heinz Field (the site of the AFC title game) in October of that year and were the favorites to win the Super Bowl that season. But the Patriots went on the road and dominated them 41-27 on the way to their second consecutive Super Bowl title and third in four years.
Bettis admits on the podcast he thought about retiring after the 2004 AFC title game, but he returned for the 2005 season and the Steelers won the Super Bowl by defeating the Seattle Seahawks. Bettis, who had never won the Lombardi Trophy prior to that Super Bowl, then retired.
Opposing players will continue to use the Spygate scandal as an excuse for why their team lost to the Patriots from 2001 through 2006. The reality is the Patriots were just a better team, one led by the greatest head coach and quarterback in league history.