By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 17, 2005

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Only on Halloween.

Hobgoblins surrounded Heinz Field. The Wicked Witch of the West flew around the Patriot bench with that green skin and that horrid cackle. Instead of U2 and Gary Glitter singing about beautiful days and the word "Hey!", it's Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Ray Stevens singing about monsters and purple people eaters.

How else do you explain the world champions being pushed and shoved around by a team which the Patriots on normal days can match or exceed in power and intensity? Here you had the Patriots riding into the big Ketchup Bottle with an NFL-record 21-game win streak, and they got smacked to the tune of 21-3 -- after one period. The Steelers won 34-20, ruining some of the euphoria in the region from the previous Wednesday's World Series win by the Red Sox. That one measly win stood up as the eventual main reason why the conference championship will be at Pittsburgh and not Foxborough.

The Steelers are now the new "run the table" team. Even if the Patriots had not laid that egg down in Miami back in December, this game would still be here. Had Miami not rallied to beat the Patriots, both teams would have finished 15-1, and by virtue of that Halloween win by the Steelers, they would still win the tiebreaker with the Super Bowl champs. As it stands, the Patriots followed the lead of the 1998 Atlanta Falcons as the only teams in NFL history to win 14 regular season games but have to play a road playoff game.

If you dig that history, consider that in 1998, when the 14-2 Falcons traveled to Minneapolis to play the 15-1 Vikings, the Falcons won in overtime and advanced to Super Bowl XXXIII. That's a comfort for the Patriots in that a road 14-2 playoff team has never lost. The Patriots would love to exact revenge on the Steelers and step over them on their way to their second straight Super Bowl and third in the last four years.

Remarkably, depending upon your point of view, the Patriots were installed as an early three-point favorite. This is against a team which is on a 14-game win streak, against a quarterback who is undefeated in his entire NFL career, against a team who plays at a sickeningly loud stadium filled with delirious fans who likely remember 2001's disaster (for them) very well. Seeing their team as the dog will only make Heinz Field louder, and the hometown football team that much angrier.

Let there be no question that these two teams, as well as their fan bases, do not like each other. There are plenty of players left on the 2004 team who remember vividly three Januaries ago when Bill Cowher stupidly made public the team's plans for lodging in New Orleans, the site of Super Bowl XXXVI. Willie McGinest proudly proclaimed "Cancel those reservations! Cancel all those reservations!" from the Patriot bench as the clock ran out on a 24-17 Patriot win, sending them to New Orleans instead. Steeler fans were appalled at the sight of their team having the audacity to lose to, in their opinion, a far inferior team on their home field. You can bet that many Patriot players today don't fancy having to play in Pittsburgh this weekend instead of home thanks to that measly Halloween loss. This will be a grudge match between two teams who think they are the best and that the other team is a big, fat fraud.

What will decide this game is the state of the teams right now, not October 2004 or January 2002. Right now, the Steelers are "reeling" from a win that should have been a loss at home on Saturday to the Jets, who they themselves were lucky to even be in that game. The Patriots, meanwhile, set offensive gameplanning back 50 years with a patchwork secondary that held Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis offense to only three points on Sunday. This is mainly why Las Vegas installed the Patriots as the early faves.

The general feeling is that Ben Roethlisberger, the obvious choice for offensive rookie of the year, was exposed against the Jets. He had his two worst games of the season against the Jets, yet still somehow won them both. Since taking over in week two for the injured Tommy Maddox, Roethlisberger is 14-0 as a starter. By all rights, the Steelers should have lost Saturday at home to the Jets, except that lousy play calling by offensive coordinator Paul Hackett set Doug Brien up to fail twice on hard-to-make field goals in perhaps the worst stadium in the NFL to kick field goals. If Brien makes either field goal, we are talking about a date this Sunday at Gillette Stadium with the Jets coming to town.

Bill Belichick will have plenty of delicious game film of Roethlisberger to study over the coming week, film which will show that he had subpar games down the stretch yet his team somehow pulled out victories. Suffice it to say that Belichick will have something ready to throw at the rookie which should make him wonder "Where was this back in October?"

You also cannot ignore the fact that Corey Dillon missed the first encounter in October, and the Patriot running game suffered dearly for it. In his first playoff game ever on Sunday, Dillon rushed 23 times for 144 yards, proving that he can handle the playoffs just fine and that he will be a major reason for victory if the Patriots come out on top this weekend. The Steelers know all about Dillon from his days as a division rival in Cincinnati, but with the Patriot offensive line opening up holes for him, things should be quite different from his Bengal days for him, and thus for his team versus October.

There is one other factor to consider when gauging the Patriots' chances on Sunday. In 2001, Bettis had nine carries for eight yards in the AFC title game. Duce Staley is not Amos Zereoue, but Zereoue himself managed only 11 yards on four carries in that 2001 AFC Championship Game. The point being made is that the Patriots can shut down the Steeler run attack, and many of the same men who played in that game will be here on both sides of the ball, including Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings, two Steeler linemen. Ted Johnson and nose tackles Keith Traylor and Vince Wilfork will have to have huge games this Sunday.

All week long, the smack will run and run fast. Fans from opposite sides will be at each other's throats, and not one kind word will be offered up. Someone from the Steeler locker room will say something that will get put up on the Patriot bulletin board because Cowher won't stem that sort of thing like Belichick can and will. Longtime Steeler radio voice Myron Cope will rally Steeler Nation with his raspy, fanatical tone, while Patriot Nation will pray that talk radio will stay on the topic of the Patriots and not venture over into the baseball world champs.

It's going to be a long and testy week ahead. Two teams which hate each other are about to knock heads for the right to go to Super Bowl XXXIX. One seed versus two seed. Combined records of 29-3. It doesn't get much better than that.

Well it does. As long as your team wins.


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