By: Bob George/
September 25, 2005

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PITTSBURGH -- To all NFL wannabe champions out there, the real ones taught you a very important lesson on Sunday.

You can count on one hand the number of teams out there who can overcome three turnovers with two coming in the Red Area (coach prefers "area” to "zone”), injuries to your starting strong safety and left tackle, and a raucous Heinz Field crowd and still come out on top. The Patriots were crippled on offense with the early departure of Matt Light, the defense wounded with the removal of Rodney Harrison, but in the end neither unit missed a beat when it mattered the most.

The Steelers are still good enough to have tied the game with 1:21 to go, but the Patriots were simply better. With that much time left and no timeouts, all they did was simply get Adam Vinatieri in field goal range, never mind that this is the worst stadium in the league to kick a field goal in.

But Vinatieri, who tied his own record for longest field goal at Heinz Field for a visitor, calmly and coolly drilled a 43-yard trey with one second left, and the Patriots hung on for a 23-20 win before a once-again disheartened Steeler home crowd. The Patriots got themselves back on the winning track and a great frame of mind, and sent a message to the rest of the league that they know how to win better than anyone else.

Ben Roethlisberger has suffered only two losses in his career as a starter, and both losses have been to the Patriots. Sunday's loss was merely his first ever in the regular season. Despite an early 85-yard touchdown strike to Hines Ward, Roethlisberger never got into a rhythm and was pressured all night long. He was sacked four times for 26 yards lost, completed only 12 of 28 passing, and beat Tom Brady in quarterback rating only because he threw 2 TD passes and had none picked. Otherwise, Brady won this battle in a walk.

In the end, this was a game the Patriots were only able to win because of their championship pedigree. Coming into Heinz Field and losing the turnover battle 3-1, as well as sustaining the key injuries they did, this should have been plenty enough for the Steelers to win. If nothing else, what this game did was cheapen the two wins Pittsburgh had coming into this game (against Tennessee and Houston), and give the Steelers cause for concern regarding their overall ability to go deep in the playoffs, that is unless they cannot win their division (hello, Cincinnati).

The three turnovers were, typically, un-Patriotic. The Patriots drove 75 yards in 15 plays on their third offensive possession of the game. Facing first and ten at the Pittsburgh 14, Brady found Kevin Faulk for a right screen pass. Faulk scampered six yards and had a clear path to the end zone, but Clark Haggans stripped the ball right out of Faulk's hands. Barry Foote recovered and returned it 27 yards. This turned out to be inconsequential, and we'll say why in just a bit.

Late in the first half, the Patriots were driving towards the lead touchdown and had first and goal at the Steeler 8. Brady dropped back and looked for Faulk in the left flat. Kimo von Oelhoffen stuck up his paw and tipped the pass straight up in the air, and Chris Hope came down with the ball.

On the second offensive possession of the second half, the Patriots had third and 15 at their own 25. Brady faked a screen and tried a shovel toss to Faulk. He fumbled the ball, and Travis Kirschke recovered at the 28. Six plays later, the Steelers increased their lead to 13-7 on a 24-yard field goal by Jeff Reed.

Three killer turnovers, but the Steelers could only muster three points. This could very well have been the critical ingredient in victory for the Patriots.

The one Steeler turnover could also have been the turning point in the game. Roethlisberger had a chance to bury the Patriots early, as they had just recovered the first Faulk fumble. Two plays later, Roethlisberger found Antwaan Randle El wide open in the left flat. He took the toss and rumbled 49 yards to the Patriot 15. With defenders converging on him, he amazingly tried to lateral to Ward. Ward was shocked out of his mind, and could not come up with the ill-advised toss. Eugene Wilson fell on the football at the Patriot 11. If you hadn't seen a real bonehead play in quite some time, you saw it here.

This gaffe by Randle El allowed the Patriots to stave off disaster and to also hang around in the game. They were never behind by more than six points. When the Steelers finally began to tire on both sides of the ball, the Patriots were able to take advantage.

The Steeler offense managed only one first down in the third quarter, and only two in the fourth quarter up until the drive that tied the score at 20. Defensive pressure from the Patriots was intense all during the game in general and in the second half in particular. Roethlisberger was hurried 12 times in the game and sacked four times, twice by Richard Seymour. The Patriots permitted Willie Parker only 55 yards on 17 carries, another key to victory in this contest.

Brady finally found a rhythm in the final quarter. They took a 17-13 lead thanks to an 86-yard drive punctuated by two catches by David Givens for 44 yards, two catches by Troy Brown for 23 yards, and a seven-yard touchdown run by Corey Dillon (his second of the game) behind terrific lead blocking by Patrick Pass. They extended it to 20-13 on the next drive thanks largely to 32 yards on two catches by Givens. Dillon also hauled in a pass for 19 yards. Givens wound up with nine catches for 130 yards.

With the Steeler defense tiring, Brady was finally able to find receivers, and when he did he finally looked like the Brady of old. Brady himself was sacked three times, but in the end directed a masterful performance. He finished with 372 passing yards on 31 or 41 passing. Part of this success also goes to the offensive unit finally figuring how to plug rookie Nick Kaczur in at left tackle after Light went down with his injury. Critics who had thought that Brady was off kilter in previous games can sit down and find something else to complain about.

The Patriots surrendered a late touchdown only because they were in a no touchdown defense and thus stopped blitzing Roethlisberger effectively. A questionable pass interference call on Chad Scott set up a four-yard toss to Ward, tying the game at 20 with 1:21 left.

But that was plenty of time for champs like Brady and Vinatieri. Starting at their own 37, Brady lobbed tosses to Faulk for 17, Pass for 14 (both of whom knew to get out of bounds instead of going for more yards with no timeouts left), and then Givens for 6. The Steelers let the clock tick down, but Vinatieri was able to get the kick off in time and nail it from 43 for the win.

And that is how you come into hostile territory against the 2004 AFC runner-up and win like that. Champs simply know how to win.