By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 21, 2005

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PITTSBURGH -- Yogi Berra once said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!"Ě

Patriots/Steelers
Close-Up
What: AFC Championship
Where: Heinz Field
Pittsburgh, Pa.
When: Sunday 1/23/05
6:30 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 930
2004 Team
Records:
Patriots 15-2
Steelers 16-1
Latest Line: Patriots by 3
No such problem here. The Patriots are sailing up the Ohio River, they see the split at downtown Pittsburgh, they bear left on the Allegheny, then dock their vessel at Heinz Field. A playoff date on Sunday awaits the Super Bowl champs. At stake is a return trip to the very same big dance the Patriots have ruled for two of the last three years.

The next fork in the road is a bit tougher. Do you take the road back to Foxborough or the road down south to Jacksonville? In this case it's not which road you choose but rather which road you are allowed to choose. This then becomes the biggest confluence of them all.

The Patriots have put one "most anticipated game of the season"Ě behind them and now move on to the other. You have two teams who have seen a bit of each other in the postseason since 1996. You have two teams who saw each other earlier this season. And you have two teams entangled in one of the most amazing stories of this 2004 season.

The Patriots are 14-2, but have to play on the road because the Steelers are 15-1. The Steelers are undefeated with rookie Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. On Halloween, the Steelers beat the Patriots here at Heinz Field, 34-20. Yet the Patriots were installed as early three-point favorites, and that margin remains going into the weekend. To put it into the simplest of terms, the stage is set.

These are two teams who don't like each other, who feel disrespected by the other, and who aren't saying a thing about each other in the negative for fear it may torque off their opponent. You have two dipolar opposite head coaches, one who succeeds by inspiration and one who succeeds by being the football version of Albert Einstein. You have two sniping fan bases, both of which believe that making it to the Super Bowl is a matter of "birthright"Ě. You have two regions that wear these teams like badges of honor, who get their news from honorable female news anchors like Sally Wiggin and Natalie Jacobson, and who love their football weather cold and nasty.

Here we go again. Pittsburgh and New England. It's not as time-honoured as Sox-Yankees, but as far as the 2004 AFC season goes, this was simply how things were supposed to turn out. Pittsburgh won on Halloween and had a better record, so they get to play host. Fine. Bring it on. Winner goes to the Big Show.

Except for those folks who call western Pennsylvania home, many football observers look at the 3-point spread favoring the Patriots and aren't a bit surprised. Roethlisberger looked every bit like a rookie last Saturday against the Jets, and only bad coaching which begat two missed field goals late in the game prevented the Steelers from gagging at home and this game being played at Gillette. Meanwhile, at Gillette, the Patriots held one of the greatest offenses in NFL history to only 3 points. Put these two converging "rivers"Ě together, and the resulting confluence would be the Foxborough River, symbolic of a putative Patriot win.

But how putative? Nobody loyal to the Patriots will guarantee anything, nor should they. This will be a tough game, for many reasons. You are still talking about a 15-1 team and a quarterback who has yet to lose an NFL game. So, how will the Patriots take what happened on Halloween and turn this Sunday into a return trip to the Super Bowl?

Basic staple of life in football

Run the ball. Stop the run. It's like rice in the orient.

The ultimate key to a Patriot win may be how well they contain Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. The Patriots have seen both backs a bit in the past, Staley when he was with the Eagles prior to the 2004 season.

Staley never had this kind of offensive line when he was with the Eagles (not that it was a bad one, but this Steeler line is arguably the best in the NFL right now), but he did manage one decent effort in two meetings with the Patriots in Philadelphia. Staley rushed for 93 yards on 29 carries in a 24-9 win on December 19, 1999 (the infamous game which most people believe sealed Pete Carroll's fate at season's end). In the 2003 Week 2 tilt, Staley rushed for only 17 yards on five carries before going down with an injury. In this season's Halloween matchup, Staley flummoxed the Patriots for 125 yards on 25 carries.

The Patriots, on the other hand, have handled Bettis often in the past, and especially in the postseason. In the 1996 Fog Bowl, he had 43 yards on 13 carries whilst nursing a sore hamstring. The following year, he had 67 yards but only a 2.7 yards per carry average in a 7-6 Steeler win. And in the 2001 AFC Championship Game, Bettis was held to eight yards on nine carries. In each game, Bettis faced a different defensive coordinator (Al Groh, Steve Sidwell, Romeo Crennel) and a different head coach (Bill Parcells, Carroll, Bill Belichick). All three schemes proved effective in stopping The Bus.

On the other hand, you have The Main Man Missing On Halloween. He has a new name now. He's called "Clock killin' Corey Dillon"Ě. He's the Patriot X-factor, and perhaps their biggest ingredient to victory.

Dillon only topped the 100-yard mark twice against Pittsburgh as a Bengal. But this is a different scheme and different personnel. Dillon has had his playoff taste, now he faces a former division rival who thinks as much of him as Bengal Nation does. Expect Dillon to run downhill with a huge chip on his shoulder, and expect him to do lots of clock killin'.

Trouble is, Pittsburgh was the best NFL defense against the run in 2004. The key is for the Patriots to get lots of good second-level blocks on the outstanding Steeler linebacker corps. The Steelers have way too much speed at the outside linebacker position (Joey Porter, Clark Haggans) for the Patriots to make a lot of hay all game long. Dillon will need to pound between the tackles and find his glory where the yards are the toughest.

Twice burned? Not against Belichick

Here is the main reason why the Patriots are considered by many to be the favorites.

Belichick doesn't lose to teams he faces in a season for the second time. This is especially applicable to rookie quarterbacks. Belichick will have obsessed himself all week long with dissecting Roethlisberger in every game he has played this year, especially the ones down the stretch where his play was subpar but the Steelers still somehow managed to win. In particular, he will look at how poorly he played against the Jets last week, and he will find lots of little things the Patriots can do to confuse him.

This isn't partisan whimsy. This is simply what Belichick does. Roethlisberger did not finish the season as well as he started, but was saved thanks to the fact that none of his opponents were good enough to take advantage. The world champs are plenty good enough, period.

Kings of Pride Rock

A championship feeling is both intoxicating and contagious. The Patriots have been to the mountain twice in recent years. The Steelers cannot say this unless they played for Chuck Noll thirty years ago.

The Patriots left Heinz Field in October a beaten and beat up team. This aspect will be on the minds of all the players on Sunday. That loss was the streak-buster; though the players will downplay that element, you have to believe that the end of the 21-game win streak is somewhere deep in the psyche of the players. Not one single Patriot will take the field Sunday and not be thinking about their last visit here.

How will this affect Sunday's game? Suffice it to say that the Patriots will not be beaten up like they were last time. Suffice it also to say that a few Steelers will feel the wrath of the Patriots, though they aren't as soft as the Colts are. The feeling of being champions and what was done to them by this team three months ago will have a profound impact on the intensity level of the Patriots, and when this happens, good things naturally follow.

Tell Vegas to shut up

The problem is, they're going to need all the intensity they can get.

They can intimidate the Colts. They won't intimidate the Steelers, plain and simple.

Making the Patriots 3-point favorites was a most unfortunate thing to happen to the Patriots. The Steelers will use this underdog status as a catalyst to fire them up and match the Patriots in the intensity department. It's the Patriots who like to be the underdog, and one can only wonder how the Steelers will react on the field Sunday to being 16-1 at home in the playoffs and being a three-point dog.

How well the Patriots handle this aspect is even more critical than their own pride. The Steelers won't be one bit awed by the fact that the Patriots wear the crown right now. If the Steeler offensive line comes out even more physical than they did in October, if Bettis hits the line harder than a battering ram, if Hines Ward turns Asante Samuel into mincemeat instead of vice versa, the Patriots can curse the ghosts of Jimmy The Greek and Pete Axthelm for making them favorites in a game where they perhaps shouldn't be.

It's really Pittsburgh versus history

Here is a subject which Belichick wants absolutely no part of. New day, new situation, new everything. What does Halloween have to do with this Sunday? Not a (censored) thing is what he'll tell you.

Okay, so we will. Enjoy what follows, because it all favors the Patriots.

The Patriots are 4-0 in franchise history in AFC Championship Games.

Bill Cowher is 1-3 in such games, all at home.

Cowher is 1-2 against the Patriots in the postseason. In the one win, his side scored only seven points.

Cowher lost the last time these two teams met in this postseason scenario, right here at Heinz Field..

The Patriots are the second team in NFL history to win 14 games and have to play a road playoff game.

The other team to do so also faced a 15-1 team.

The other team to do so won the game.

It was in 1998. Atlanta 27, Minnesota 24 in OT. You can figure that the Patriots will do better in the Super Bowl than the Falcons did, if they win Sunday.

When that Patriot vessel docked at the confluence sets sail on Sunday, here's hoping it reaches its next destination with no trouble.

As long as that next destination is a little hot spot called Jacksonville Landing.


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