Patriots destroy Pittsburgh in AFC title game to earn another Super Bowl trip
PITTSBURGH -- Seven minutes and seven seconds remained in the first quarter when it became evident that the Patriots were going to win the AFC Championship last night at Heinz Field.
The Steelers had decided to go for it on fourth and 1 at the Patriots' 39-yard line. It wasn't the biggest or the most important play because it came so early, but it seemed to crystalize what the Patriots, who were about to win their third AFC Championship in four years, were all about.
Before the Steelers came up to the line of scrimmage, coach Bill Belichick summoned middle linebacker Ted Johnson and offered some advice. Johnson, who calls the defensive signals, took that advice back to the huddle. Moments later, Jerome Bettis took a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger and was stopped dead in his tracks by Rosevelt Colvin, who stripped the ball loose. Mike Vrabel made the recovery.
"[Belichick] saw something and he alerted me and it turned out to be huge. It was an adjustment -- I really can't go into it," said Johnson. "That stuff happens all the time. It's amazing sometimes."
So many small things added up to a 41-27 win over the Steelers, sending New England to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville Feb. 6. If the Patriots had a to-do list, you can be sure every item has been checked off.
New England stopped the Steelers' inside running game, holding Bettis to 64 yards on 17 carries. They rattled Roethlisberger, who had three interceptions, including one that was returned 87 yards for a touchdown by Rodney Harrison, boosting the visitors' lead to 24-3 late in the first half. The Patriots solved Pittsburgh's vaunted zone blitz as Tom Brady, who improved to 8-0 in the postseason, had another of his money games, completing 14 of 21 attempts for 207 yards, a pair of touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 130.5 passer rating.
In addition to Harrison and Brady, Deion Branch and Corey Dillon also came up with big plays. Branch caught four passes for 116 yards and a touchdown and rushed twice for 37 yards and another score. Dillon rushed 24 times for 73 yards, including a huge 25-yard scoring run in the third. Let's not forget a pair of interceptions by Eugene Wilson and a Heinz Field record-tying 48-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri.
It was as if the Patriots sent a gift to millions of New Englanders trapped in their homes as as result of the weekend blizzard.
"This is for all the fans," said Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who accepted the Lamar Hunt Trophy after the game from AFC representative Joe Namath. "We have the greatest fans in the country and we know that the weather is tough up there and we wanted this for them."
The Patriots created their own blizzard on the field. The Patriots had been smacked around in a 34-20 loss here on Halloween. All week New England watched film of how awful it played. The Patriots were embarrassed and you can be sure Belichick reminded them plenty.
"We played Patriots football," nose tackle Keith Traylor said. "We were physical from the opening play. We came out with an attitude and they fought back. Coach [Bill] Cowher's teams never quit and they didn't."
The Patriots' 21-game winning streak ended here Oct. 31, but last night the Patriots ended Pittsburgh's 15-game winning streak in what was a far more devastating loss.
Traylor was right about the Steelers not quitting. Pittsburgh scored two touchdowns and a field goal to pull within 11 points with 13:29 remaining.
Both teams were aided by overturned plays on challenges which led to scores.
The Steelers got their break when David Givens made what appeared to be a 44-yard catch over the middle for a first down at the Steelers' 28. But before Brady could run the next play, Cowher tossed the red beanbag and officials overturned the call, ruling the ball hit the ground. That forced the Patriots to punt.
The Steelers started at their 45 following a 22-yard return by Antwaan Randle El and drove to the New England 2. But on fourth and goal, Cowher sent in Jeff Reed, who drilled a 20-yard field goal.
"I think with 13 1/2 minutes to go, to only be down by 11 points, which is just two scores -- a field goal, a touchdown, and a 2-point conversion -- I thought there was too much time to go with 2 yards to come away with nothing. That was my decision and I would do it again," Cowher said.
The Patriots had received a big break on another play involving Givens, who had caught an 18-yard pass and appeared to fumble. Officials ruled cornerback Willie Williams had recovered, but a look by the replay judge revealed that Givens's knee had hit the ground. A 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Clark Haggans was tacked on. On the next play, Dillon, who had been contained quite nicely, ran behind Stephen Neal around the right side and went 25 yards into the end zone to give the Patriots a 31-10 lead.
The Steelers had scored on their first possession of the third quarter when Roethlisberger, whose right hand had been soothed with cold water late in the first half, came out with an air of confidence. He led the Steelers on a five-play, 56-yard drive, the big play a 34-yard pass to Randle El. Bettis took it in from the 5.
Harrison's 87-yard interception return for a touchdown, which made it a 24-3 with 2:14 remaining in the first half, broke the Steelers' back. Roethlisberger stepped back and tried to throw it to the right side to tight end Jerame Tuman. Harrison, however, jumped the route, snagged the pass, and was helped by a Mike Vrabel block on Roethlisberger to to jog, then walk, into the end zone.
"That was at least a 10-point swing, maybe more," Belichick said.
The Patriots had gone ahead, 17-3, on a five-play drive in which Brady connected on a 46-yard pass and great catch by Branch, who caught the ball while getting hit by Troy Polamalu at the Steelers' 14.
Two plays later, Brady appeared to check off at the line when he spotted the defense playing off Givens. Brady hit Givens with a quick toss, freezing Williams, who slipped and allowed Givens to run 9 yards untouched into the end zone.
The Patriots forced two early turnovers, the first when Wilson picked off Roethlisberger's first throw of the game when the rookie overthrew Randle El. It was Roethlisberger's eighth interception in his last 87 throws.
The first of two Branch reverses -- the second one resulted in a 23-yard touchdown run in the fourth -- seemed to loosen the Steeler defense. That led to Vinatieri's long field goal, which he said was his pregame limit.
It was after the big fourth-and-1 stop of Bettis in the first quarter that Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis went for the jugular. Starting at his 40, Brady hit Branch in stride at about the 5-yard line and the speedy receiver stumbled in from there. Brady made the play work when he looked over the middle, which drew Polamalu over and left Branch alone with DeShea Townsend. The 60-yard touchdown reception is longest in Patriots postseason history.
Trailing, 10-0, the Steelers got on the board via a 43-yard field goal by Reed after Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward for a 19-yard gain to the Patriots' 29. The Steelers couldn't muster much more before settling for 3.
It wouldn't be long before the little things added up to another AFC Championship.