PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' 34-20 victory that ended the Patriots' 21-game winning streak was one of the NFL's top performances all season and certified rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as a star.
Winning was impressive enough. How the Steelers did it was equally bewildering to New England, with a game plan that could have been swiped right off Patriots coach Bill Belichick's clipboard.
Control the clock. Cause confusion for the opposing quarterback with ever-changing defensive looks and blitzes. Pound the ball with a power running game, but don't throw just on obvious passing downs. Always be the aggressor, the team setting the tempo.
"We got a lot of people in his [Patriots QB Tom Brady's] face and tried to make him make some bad decisions, and he made a couple of bad decisions and we capitalized on them," All-Pro linebacker James Farrior said yesterday, recalling Brady's two interceptions.
Now, the Steelers must be wondering if anyone remembers that Oct. 31 game, their 9-0 home record, or their 15-game winning streak. The only longer streak during an NFL season was the 1972 Dolphins' 17-game run.
The Patriots are 3-point favorites for Sunday night's AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, where they began their reign as the NFL's pre-eminent team by upsetting the Steelers, 24-17, for the conference title in January 2002.
If the Steelers are motivated at being underdogs amid one of the NFL's best seasons ever -- they've won 16 of 17 -- they weren't saying so yesterday. They weren't about to pull a Mike Vanderjagt by predicting the Patriots look eminently beatable, as the Colts' kicker did before New England's 20-3 divisional playoff win Sunday.
"They've won two of the last three Super Bowls, so it would foolish of me to sit back and think they're not the favorite," running back Jerome Bettis said. "If I was on the outside looking in, I'd say the same thing."
Then, no doubt referring to the Patriots' manhandling of NFL MVP Peyton Manning, Bettis said, "People count them out every time they play a worthy opponent and they find a way to beat them, and you have to respect that."
Of course, being an underdog might be what the Steelers need, considering how poorly they played as the favorite in AFC Championship games at home.
This is the fifth time since January 1995 they have staged the conference title game, but their only victory came when they held off the decided underdog Colts, 20-16, in January 1996. They also lost to the Chargers as a 10-point favorite in January 1995 and John Elway's Broncos as a 3-point favorite in January 1998, plus New England as a 9 1/2-point favorite three years ago.
These Patriots (14-2 during the season) look to be the best of the Steelers' five title-game opponents, though the Broncos went on to win consecutive Super Bowls.
"I don't know if it's a big motivator," All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said of that 2002 loss to New England. "It's helped guide us a lot through this season, [learning to] take it game by game."
What Roethlisberger took out of playing New England -- besides one of his best statistical performances, with 196 yards passing, two TDs and no INTs in only his fourth NFL start -- was knowledge of the Patriots' defense.
That probably will help the rookie in the rematch, although Manning played a much worse game against New England the second time around Sunday than he did in the NFL season opener in September.
"It's not what they do, it's how much they do," Faneca said, referring to New England's defense. "They're so used to doing different things, they can change their scheme up from week to week and make it difficult on you."