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Picking up where we left off

PITTSBURGH -- A World Series and a Super Bowl just 3 1/2 months apart? The ultimate harvest of memories and rings for one sports-crazed region? It could happen if the Patriots beat the Steelers at snowy, frozen Heinz Field in tonight's AFC Championship game.

Truly, this is the golden age of New England sports. We're still warm (snowbound, but warm) from the glow of the Red Sox first World Series victory in 86 years and now the local footballers are inching toward dynasty status, threatening to win a third Super Bowl in four years, which would put them in the pantheon of pro pigskin powers alongside Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers of the '60s, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain of the '70s, the San Francisco 49ers of the '80s, and the Dallas Cowboys of the '90s.

Some of those cities called themselves "Titletown," which is what Greater Boston becomes if the Patriots win another Super Bowl this season.

Only one city has copped bookend Super Bowl trophies while winning a World Series in between and it's Pittsburgh -- this hardscrabble hamlet where the three rivers merge and Jerome Bettis roams. The Chuck Noll-Joe Greene-Terry Bradshaw Steelers beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII in January of 1979. Nine months later, Willie Stargell's "We Are Family" Pirates came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the favored Orioles. Then the Steelers beat the Rams in the Rose Bowl in Super Bowl XIV.

The Bay Area turned the trick in 1989-90 with the Oakland A's winning a World Series in between two Bill Walsh Super Bowls, but Oakland and San Francisco each have their own sets of fans. Florida was the home of the Super Bowl champs (Tampa Bay) and the World Series winner (Marlins, playing in Miami) in 2003, but those cities share nothing except the same license plate. The Mets and Jets made Shea Stadium the home of champions in 1969. The Baltimore Colts won the Super Bowl in 1971, only months after the Orioles beat the Reds in the 1970 Series. But only Steeltown was a true Titletown.

It's premature and certainly not the kind of topic Mensa coach Bill Belichick would warm to. Belichick scoffed at talk of dynasty all week. He's probably furious the Patriots are favored to beat the 16-1 Steelers. Belichick has been in Opponent-Praising-Overdrive since the Patriots put the Colts down for the winter last weekend.

Three years ago in New Orleans, en route to their first Super Bowl victory, Belichick and friends beat Bill Cower's Steelers, 24-17, in an AFC title game at this very site where giant ketchup bottles adorn the end zone scoreboard. More recently it was the Steelers beating New England, 34-20, to snap the Patriots' 21-game winning streak on Halloween 2004, just four days after the Red Sox brought the trophy back from St. Louis.

Ever the psychological strategist, Belichick won't speak of the victory here three years ago, or his team's status as favorites. The coach gets more mileage out of Pittsburgh's October thrashing of New England. Reminded that his team is picked to win tonight, the Patriots coach cited the Oct. 31 loss and said, "Did somebody burn those films?" He added, "This year they've been the best team in football so right now we're trying to catch them. My concern is going into Pittsburgh and trying to play a more competitive game than we did last time."The Steelers are led by rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is 14-0 as a starter, though he struggled against the New York Jets last weekend, and may be hindered by a hand injury. Belichick is traditionally tough to beat twice in one season and he can be particularly cruel to young quarterbacks.Wide receiver Plaxico Burress called for Steelers fans to remain calm, saying, "Tell 'em to sit back, grab a six-pack, meditate, sit back, and enjoy the game. Ain't nothing to worry about. Everybody's fine."When the Patriots last played at Heinz they were without running back Corey Dillon (thigh injury), who last week ran for 144 yards against the Colts. New England ran for only 5 yards on six carries in the Halloween nightmare at Heinz.Playoff football, particularly in bad weather, is generally won in the trenches and the team with the better running game usually prevails. Pittsburgh has a veteran tandem of locomotive running backs in Bettis and Duce Staley. The Steelers ranked first in the AFC with 154 yards per game on the ground and they also have big, physical wide receivers, guys who hit back when they are bumped by the likes of New England's Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. New England gave it up four times at Pittsburgh in October -- two fumbles and two Tom Brady interceptions. Last weekend against Indy, the Patriots committed zero turnovers and took the ball from the Colts three times.

Pittsburgh's defense was the best in the NFL in 2004, allowing a league-low 15.7 points per game. It presents the ultimate test, particularly in the cold and snow, for wonderboy Brady, who is 7-0 lifetime in the playoffs.

Brady's record is not the only New England playoff streak on the line. The Patriots, 2-2 in four Super Bowl appearances, have never lost an AFC Championship game. The Patriots beat the Dolphins in 1986, the Jaguars in '96, the Steelers in 2001, and the Colts last year. A victory today puts Belichick and Co. in Jacksonville Feb. 6 against the winner of today's NFC Championship game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons.

Bad weather is not likely to bother the Patriots. Remember legless Lieutenant Dan Taylor holding on to a sailmast during a hurricane in "Forrest Gump," shaking his fist at the swirling torrent and demanding, "Is that all you got?" That's the New England Patriots when it gets cold and snowy at playoff time.

So here we go. Again. Another championship game. Just over 12 weeks since Doug Mientkiewicz put the baseball in a safety deposit box. Golden days indeed.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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