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The New England Patriots inflicted some hard hits on the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Bill Cowher era, but the retired coach isn’t holding a grudge.

“It’s only cheating if you get caught,” the Hall of Fame coach explained. Who can argue with that? After all, we’re talking about a franchise that has been caught and punished, repeatedly — just never for anything while playing the Steelers.

The New England Patriots have quite a history

Football fans have a hard time trusting coach Bill Belichick. The reason for their lingering suspicion is understandable. The Patriots have had more than their share of run-ins with the league office.

Everyone knows the big three Patriots scandals:

  • Spygate in 2007, for which the NFL fined the Patriots as a team and Belichick individually for focusing cameras on New York Jets coaches sending in signals. That episode led people to start digging again into allegations that the Patriots may have spied on a St. Louis Rams walk-through before Super Bowl 36.
  • Deflategate in the 2014 AFC Championship Game vs. the Indianapolis Colts, which resulted in the league suspending Tom Brady for four games. The NFL stripped two draft picks from the Patriots and fined the team $1 million.
  • The 2019 episode in which a Patriots online media crew working from the press box of a Cincinnati-Cleveland game focused on the sideline of the Bengals, who had an upcoming game vs. New England.

Belichick’s time with New England overlapped with the Cowher era in Pittsburgh from 2000-06, and their teams met in a pair of AFC championship games. A revelation long after the fact raises questions about whether a flag should have been thrown over one of those games.

ESPN disclosed another suspicious Patriots incident

The 2001 Steelers rolled through the regular season with a 13-3 record and beat the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. All that stood between them and the Super Bowl was a home game with the Patriots.

Pittsburgh played New England evenly that day, but three Kordell Stewart interceptions and one lost fumble by the quarterback doomed the Steelers. The Patriots, with both Drew Bledsoe and Brady at quarterback, earned a 24-17 victory.

One week later, the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl 36, which led to the accusations of spying during the lead-up to the game.

Leading up to the 2015 season opener, ESPN looked back on that Steelers-Patriots game and reported that New England possessed handwritten details of Steelers defensive signals.

Three years later, the Patriots rolled past Pittsburgh, 41-27, in another AFC championship game.

Cowher on Spygate and other suspicions: Let it go

Cowher did a string of interviews in May ahead of the release of Heart and Steel, the memoir about his coaching career, but the book doesn’t mention Spygate or the other Patriots scandals. In fact, Cowher regards Belichick as a friend despite losing out to him in 1991 when the Cleveland Browns were seeking a new head coach.

Naturally, though, reporters broached the subject of the Patriots’ shady past in interviews. They wanted to know if Cowher felt cheated in their playoff losses.

“It’s only cheating if you get caught,” Cowher told The Athletic. “Like any player, if you’re going to hold him, don’t get caught. If you get caught you’re wrong, if you don’t you’re right. I always thought we never lost the games to New England because of Spygate. If he got the calls because we didn’t do a very good job of making sure we signaled those in, that’s on us, it’s not on him. Because we’re always looking for competitive edges.

“I think as any coach whether it’s someone’s stance, someone’s split, someone’s formation (that tips off a play). You’re looking at someone’s eyes, how are they coming out of a huddle? You’re always looking for those little things that give you a competitive edge and that to me is what that was.”

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