Conference Championship
January 23, 2005
Steelers vs. Patriots
At Heinz Field, Patriots WIN, 41-27
By Scott A. Benson

The prolific New England Patriots today authored another compelling chapter in what has become one of the greatest stories in National Football League history.

With a convincing 41-27 win over the first seed Pittsburgh Steelers at a yet again sobered Heinz Field, the Pats captured their fourth conference championship in nine years, and wrote their own ticket to Jacksonville as the AFC representative to Super Bowl 39.

It will be New England痴 third Super Bowl in five seasons under masterful head coach Bill Belichick. They will face the Philadelphia Eagles on February 6th, with a chance to win their third world championship since February 2002.

It was a game of big plays, and it should surprise no one that the defending champs prevailed. Time and time again, the Belichick-era Pats have snuffed out challengers by making the biggest plays at the most crucial times, and today was no different. Pittsburgh had hoped to mirror their success of their regular season (including a Halloween whipping of New England) by beating the Patriots defense into submission, and blitzing the Patriots offense into omission.

They did none of it, at least not well enough to convince anyone they should be the AFC champs. Instead, they ended up as just another dejected sad sack slumped along New England痴 crowded Boulevard of Broken Teams.

Though there were a few dicey 3rd quarter moments, this game was won with a twenty-four point New England first half, set up by three right-out-of-the-chute Pittsburgh turnovers. Tom Brady landed the first blow with a textbook 60 yard bomb to Deion Branch, one play after the Pats defense had stuffed Jerome Bettis and forced him to fumble.

By the time Rodney Harrison stepped in front of a 2nd quarter Ben Roethlisberger out and returned it 87 yards for a score, the raucous Steelers fans were no longer waving their Terrible Towels. They were choking on them.

New England痴 mental toughness and experience took the crowd out of it early and robbed the Steelers of the home field advantage they had so convincingly earned on Halloween. It was a tough, hard hitting game, but the Patriots delivered all the defining blows.

This was yet another example of a total team victory. The ball hawking defense put the Steelers back on their heels early, and the offense converted to ensure New England痴 dominance would be reflected on the scoreboard. Then, when the defense was staggered by a second-half mini-comeback by Pittsburgh, the offense answered with time consuming drives that added points on the board and drained precious time from the clock. The Steelers never got closer than 11.

What a season. It痴 not every day your team goes 14-2 and reaches the Super Bowl. It痴 not every lifetime that your team accomplishes this as the defending champions.

I値l be the first one to tell you � when this season started, I never thought this would happen. The recent track record of defending champions � including the Pats� own painful 2002 – was too damning. As great as this band of players and coaches are, I never thought this would happen.

That it did tells me and everybody else everything we値l ever need to know about this era of New England Patriots football. They don稚 bow to history � they make it.

If they can play 60 more minutes of winning football, this will be the most remarkable season in the history of the team, and clearly one of the greatest in league history.

Patriots on Offense

Tom Brady to Deion Branch was the story.

Obviously, the Patriots believed that if they ran enough to keep the Steelers honest, they could badly gouge their secondary with deep passes. Well, it痴 one thing to know that, and something else entirely to carry it out. Which is what makes Tom Brady the best quarterback in football. He carries it out, especially in the playoffs, where he is now 8-0.

Brady痴 perfect throw to Branch ran New England痴 early lead to 10, and it was another long throw to Branch (a 45 yard dart down the middle) that set up the Patriots second touchdown, a nifty 9 yard screen to David Givens early in the 2nd quarter. Behind solid protection against the renowned Steelers pass rush, Brady had perfectly executed Charlie Weis� plan and put the Patriots in firm control of the game.

Later, when it seemed that firm grasp might be slipping, it was Brady that once again coolly put the champs back in control. A Steelers touchdown early in the 3rd quarter had trimmed the lead to 14, and the Pats offense badly needed a score before Pittsburgh could get any closer.

The Pats took over on their own 31, and Brady soon had converted a third down pass to Branch. But things quickly went sour when a Clark Haggans sack forced a 3rd and 17 at the Patriots 44.

To the rescue came Steelers end Aaron Smith, who grabbed Kevin Faulk as the Pats set up for a third down screen, and took a defensive holding penalty that gave the Pats a badly needed first down. On the next play, Brady found David Givens down the center of the Pittsburgh defense, and a diving 18 yard catch by the third year tough guy brought the Pats inside Steelers territory, to the 42.

For a moment, a poor officiating call gave Pittsburgh fans hope. Givens had lost the ball on a strip as he went to the ground, and officials immediately awarded possession to the Steelers as I had a Level Four Conniption Fit just inches from my television screen. But thanks to a New England challenge, replays quickly confirmed what even I could see from hundreds of miles away � Givens� knee hitting the ground well before he lost the ball.

To make matters worse for Pittsburgh, Haggans took a late shot at Daniel Graham as players scrummed for the loose ball, taking an unnecessary roughness call that moved the ball to the Steelers 25. On the next play, a relatively quiet Corey Dillon launched himself around right end and sprinted through and over the Pittsburgh defense for the key score.

Two completely boneheaded Pittsburgh penalties and Brady and the Patriots made sure each one hurt. They had picked up their struggling defensive teammates and suddenly, the 14 point lead was 21 again.

They would do it again once more before the afternoon was out. After a last 3rd quarter touchdown, the Steelers opened the 4th period with a Jeff Reed field goal that cut the lead back to 11. Led by Brady, who hit critical throws to Troy Brown and Givens on the drive, the Patriots held the ball for over five minutes before adding Adam Vinatieri field goal that gave them back their 14 point lead. Game over. The Steelers would get no closer.

Brady finished the day at 66% (14 for 21) with over 200 yards and two scores. Another big game and another big time performance by the amazing 27 year old. You wonder if there is any limit to what he will accomplish over his career.

When it comes to rising to the occasion, Deion Branch takes a backseat to no one. On his 60 yard touchdown, he ran a great post pattern against single coverage, and showed good strength to break a final shoetop tackle as he sped for the end zone. His 45 yarder in the 2nd quarter (which set up the score by Givens, who was also a standout) was a combination of good concentration and even better hands, as Brady found him in between a thicket of Steelers at the Pittsburgh 14.

Then, late in the 4th quarter, as the Pats attempted to run out the clock, Branch took an end around on a third down play and weaved his way for a 23 yard score, his second of the day. Much like in Super Bowl 38, Branch was brilliant throughout.

Aside from his 25 yard charge for a touchdown, Corey Dillon was largely a secondary player in this match up with the physical Steelers. Most of his 24 carries were short gains into the Pittsburgh line. Still his presence alone helped to create some of the downfield openings that Brady exploited, and besides, judging from the look on Dillon痴 face as time expired, it didn稚 look like he minded the grunt work at all.

Though the offensive line was unable to spring Dillon for more than one long run, they quietly but effectively handled the Steelers front seven and gave Brady ample time to find his downfield targets. The Steelers had just two sacks on the day.

Patriots on Defense

It was a tale of two halves. Thankfully, the Patriots defense won the right one.

With a hungry Pittsburgh whipped into a frenzy at the prospect of their 15-1 Steelers hosting the defending champs, the opening minutes would be critical to determining whether tonight痴 game would be any different than the Pats last visit to Heinz Field.

Thanks to the Patriots defense, the champs passed that test with flying colors, and not the yellow terrycloth kind. Soon after their delirious fans saw the Steelers win the opening toss, the Pats forced rookie Roethlisberger into the game痴 first error. Asante Samuel tipped, and Eugene Wilson intercepted, the rookie痴 first pass attempt, which set up a Vinatieri field goal and gave the road warrior Pats the early lead.

Their next stop was even more profound. Roethlisberger mixed his running game with a key pass to Plaxico Burress to advance the ball inside Patriots territory. When the Pats D stiffened, the Steelers were faced with a 4th and 1 at the New England 39. Jerome Bettis was in the backfield as the brawling Steelers lined up in their short yardage set.

It should be noted that Halloween was the first time anybody could remember Jerome Bettis doing ANYTHING against the Patriots. The next play provided incontrovertible evidence that this was simply an aberration.

Bettis took the handoff and bulled to the left side of the Pats line, where he was stuffed silly. Despite having less than a yard to travel, the Bus never got close to the marker. For good measure, he allowed himself to be stripped by Rosevelt Colvin, and Mike Vrabel recovered. Next play, Brady to Branch, and its 10-0 Patriots.

Later in the quarter, the Pats held Pittsburgh to a 43 yard Jeff Reed field goal when a poor punt by Josh Miller stuck them with a short field.

After the Pats offense had extended the lead to 14 points with the Givens touchdown, the defense drove a big nail in the Steelers coffin with a signature play that has probably already been burned to a commemorative DVD.

Roethlisberger had driven the Steelers back inside Patriots territory with a 28 yard pass to Hines Ward, and a third down sneak that gave Pittsburgh a first down at the NE 23. On second down, Roethlisberger went to his right looking for tight end Jerame Tuman, whose out pattern was being covered by Rodney Harrison.

Harrison baited the throw, and pounced immediately when the rookie let it go. He grabbed on the fly at the NE 13 and started up the far sideline with only Roethlisberger between him and the end zone.

Well, I guess Mike Vrabel was in there too, because it was him that sent the rookie quarterback flying ass over teakettle, allowing Harrison to practically walk the final ten yards to the end zone. It was an 87 yard touchdown return and at least a 10 (and perhaps as much as 14) point swing.

By the way, I know the Steelers came back and made it (somewhat) of a game in the second half, but how was it Harrison was able to power walk the final 25-30 yards of that return? He could have been timed with a sundial. Did you see one Steeler besides Roethlisberger giving chase? Where were those wide receivers, or running backs? Nobody? Hmmmm. Sorry, but I don稚 think you壇 see such an occurence involving the Patriots.

Anyway, the half ended with the Pats up by a 24-3 score, which must have been hard to swallow for Dumbass Dan Marino and Horseface Shannon Sharpe, Pitt-pickers both.

To Roethlisberger痴 credit, he rallied his team in the second half. Suddenly, the Steelers were rolling on the ground and the rookie was finding uncovered receivers for big gains. He hit a big 34 yard completion to Randle El, which set up a short Bettis TD, and then connected on a 30 yard TD to Hines Ward on a 4th down play that again made it just a two touchdown game.

The teams traded field goals as the 4th quarter opened, and the Steelers took over with almost eight minutes left, needing two scores (partially because of a lilly-livered coaching call by Bill Cowher, he of the sterling home playoff record, who settled for a field goal through he was at the Pats 2). They had scored on each of their three second-half possessions, and the Pats defense was reeling. It was time for a little first-half magic, if there was any left.

There was. On the second play of the drive, Eugene Wilson grabbed his second interception on a Roethlisberger overthrow, a diving catch that was reviewed and upheld. Thanks to yet another timely turnover, the Pats could start eying that box of t-shirts and hats that had been inconspicuously placed on their sidelines.

The Steelers added a last minute pity touchdown, but who cares?

As usual, Harrison and Tedy Bruschi led the Patriots defense. Along with his pick and return, Harrison totaled 12 tackles. Bruschi had 9, many of which were solid whacks on the preening and underproducing Bettis. Good stuff from the SI cover boy.

The Pats d-line, again without Richard Seymour, was a revelation of sorts. They didn稚 exactly blank the Pittsburgh running backs, but they assuredly blanketed them. Anchoring the productive front were Ty Warren (8 tackles) and Jarvis Green (5), who were ably backed up by the reliable Ted Johnson (8).

Wilson had the two picks and I swear, Asante Samuel probably could have had four of his own, if he had been permitted to wear stickum-coated suction cups on his gloves. Though he came away with none, he sure had his hands on a hell of a lot of Roethlisberger痴 passes. A tremendous effort by both second year d-backs.

Patriots on Special Teams

Vinatieri痴 field goal in the opening minutes was a 48 yard bomb right down the center. So much for the impenetrable (for kickers) Heinz Field. As we well know by now, Vinatieri isn稚 just any kicker. He was perfect on both of his attempts.

Josh Miller had a horrible first punt but rebounded nicely to average 40 yards on four kicks.

Coverage and returns were mixed (much stronger in the first half than second), but there were no big plays either way.

Patriots on the Sidelines

Bill Belichick has now tied the legendary Vince Lombardi for best-ever playoff record for a NFL head coach, increasing the Ron Borges Mockability Factor ten-fold.

And by the way, the next time that jackass spews his tired shtick about a certain egomaniacal head coach, show him the transcript of Belichick痴 post game remarks today. Regardless of the significance of the win, the coach was accepting no plaudits, instead deflecting any and all credit towards his able roster of tough, resilient players. I had been led to believe by Borges (as well as fellow horse痴 ass Shannon Sharpe) that this would never, ever be the case. Wrong again, Ron. You池e on quite a streak.

Patriots Next Week

Let痴 all do another Super Bowl, shall we? For the second time in the short life of the Rear View, we can say 壮ee you at the big game�.