Rout in October will be foremost in Patriots' minds
FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots are 3-point favorites in Las Vegas in the AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field Sunday night. That left Bill Belichick trying to muster up some underdog slant. When told of the spread, he said, "What, did somebody burn those films [of the first Patriots-Steelers game]?"
That's what it appears to come down to: the embarrassment of that 34-20 Oct. 31 loss at Heinz Field when the Steelers laid claim to being the AFC's best team. They have carried that designation into the AFC Championship with 15 straight wins and a 16-1 record.
No doubt that game will be dissected and referred to many times this week. Belichick will hammer that home if any player's intensity level in practice isn't where it should be.
"They did a lot of things well," said Belichick. "We didn't do hardly anything well. Obviously, I did a terrible job. You get beat, 34-13, or whatever it was, you don't feel very good about your job. I certainly didn't feel very good about my performance that day, as I am sure the whole team didn't."
The Patriots will have to beat the Steelers in their house, where Pittsburgh ended New England's 21-game winning streak on a balmy Halloween afternoon, where the field condition was terrible, and where the Patriots were smacked in the mouth, which almost never happens to them.
It's one thing to be beaten, but to be beaten up?
These teams are as close as you get. It starts with their physical nature. Belichick already has earmarked that as a huge component.
"They are a very physical team and we have to match their physical intensity," he said. "I'm sure that will be the key to the game."
Neither team is thrown off by bad weather or bad playing surfaces. Each prefers a ball-control offense. Two similar teams converging.
But there are big differences. Start with a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback, Tom Brady, vs. a rookie, Ben Roethlisberger, who in a 20-17 win over the New York Jets Saturday looked like anything but the extraordinary player he was all season. Then there are the coaches: Belichick, who can't seem to lose a playoff game, vs. Bill Cowher, who has trouble winning the AFC Championship game.
The Patriots seem to play teams better the second time around. The same applies for quarterbacks, as the Patriots are 13-0 since 2001 against new quarterbacks they've faced a second time.
It's safe to say the Patriots will change more of the game plan from the Halloween debacle than Pittsburgh will.
"When you win 15 in a row, you don't scrap everything you're doing," Belichick said. "They had a lot of success in our game doing pretty much everything, so I'm sure there will be some changes and modifications but I'm sure they would keep a significant part of that simply because it was so effective."
The Patriots faced a few other obstacles that day.
Ty Law broke his left foot when he caught it in the turf in the first quarter and hobbled off. The injury ended Law's season.
And Corey Dillon missed the entire game with a thigh injury. But the Patriots turned the ball over four times, leading to 24 points, 14 of them in the first quarter.
Brady was sacked four times, intercepted twice, and fumbled once, an uncharacteristically poor game. Kevin Faulk also fumbled. Seldom have the Patriots appeared so beatable.
"We know from experience how difficult it is to go into Pittsburgh," Belichick said. "We were pretty much down by 21 points almost the whole game, or at least the last three quarters of the game. It wasn't ever really competitive."
The Steelers claimed they were revved up by the Patriots' trash-talking, and they may try to hold onto that as motivation for this game. Roethlisberger went an efficient 18 of 24 for 196 yards, two touchdowns, and a 126.4 quarterback rating, looking as calm and collected as Brady usually does. The Patriots were never able to rattle him.
One thing that stood out were the mismatches in the Patriots' secondary against the big, physical Steeler receivers. Plaxico Burress took full advantage of Randall Gay, who has replaced Law in the starting lineup. Just two plays after Law hurt his foot, Roethlisberger read an all-out blitz and lofted a 47-yard bomb to Burress over Gay for the Steelers' first score.
With Dillon out, the Patriots ran the ball six times for 5 yards, forcing Brady to throw it up 43 times. The most dominating stat had to be time of possession, 42:58 to 17:02, in favor of the Steelers, who amassed 417 yards in total offense to 248 for the Patriots.
Asked whether things would have been different had Dillon played, Brady said, "I couldn't forecast how he was going to play. Corey's absence didn't force me into fumbling the ball."
Belichick basically agreed, saying, "When we did have a chance to run, when we weren't behind, we couldn't do anything. We just couldn't get anything done against them. Could we play better? I hope so."
"We're going to play a team that really handed it to us the first time we played them," said Brady. "Very similar to our type of team. They have a very good defense, a strong running game, some receivers who can really make some plays. They're tough to play at home. They have a defense that's very good against the run, have some playmakers in the secondary.
"They're 16-1 this year. It's going to be our toughest challenge. I really think we've got to go out and play our very best game to beat them, and hopefully that's what we do."