September 06, 2002
Underdog Status Will Yield Steely Resolve
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
If you're old enough, you can close your eyes and hear the gentle voice of the late Wally Cox.
Not plane, not bird, not even frog. It's just little old me. Underdog.
Poor Bob "Shoe Shine Boy" and Myra "Sweet Polly Purebread" Kraft. Here they go and build this gleaming new stadium, which is already hailed as the league's finest, they get a Monday night stage for the regular season inaugural game, and the "experts" across the league and Clark County, Nevada still don't buy the fact that this team is the current top dog. You have a rematch of last year's AFC Championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team the Patriots defeated on the road, and the Patriots open defense of their title as a home dog. Bob and Myra must wonder about the world in general as they peruse that Vince they won seven months ago.
Sorry, Krafts. Underdogs you have always been, and underdogs you will stay. Bill "Simon Bar Sinister" Cowher will bring his gang to Foxborough for the first time since this disgusting screen pass was thrown at Kevin Henry. Everyone across the nation will get to see Kordell "Riff Raff" Stewart rush for 137 yards and pass for 337. And don't forget Jerome "Tap Tap" Bettis, who will pound the poor Patriot defense for 184 yards and send four or five Patriot defenders to the hospital.
Because, injuries notwithstanding, everything else favors the Patriots in this game. And it is this national sentiment of viewing the Patriots as the flukiest champs ever that will likely make the difference in this game. In a contest where the Steelers should be the ones coming out of the gate with fire in their bellies, instead it will be the Patriots who will have flamethrowers to contrast the Steeler butane lighters.
Steeler fans, the national media, the guys who set the betting lines in Vegas, you name it, they love the Steelers on Monday night. Let Gillette Stadium be hanged. Let the Vince be hanged. Let Bill Belichick be hanged. The Steelers rock. The Steelers are bad. The Steelers were the real winners in January, and that the fact that they lost by seven doesn't count.
This is what the USA thinks of your Patriots. This is not news, and this is something that has been commented on in this column several times this offseason. It bears repeating because, if nothing else, Patriot Nation needs to get as much fire in their bellies as possible, just like the players.
That said, here is why the Patriots should win Monday night.
Even Pete Carroll and Steve Sidwell knew what to do with Bettis and Stewart. They just didn't know what to do with Henry and Mike Vrabel. In 1995, the Steelers prevailed at Three Rivers Stadium, 41-27. Since then, neither Stewart nor Bettis have been able to hurt the Patriots one bit. In the two games since the Fog Bowl that the Steelers won, in neither game was Stewart or Bettis the deciding factor. Stewart will choke with the game on the line, and the Patriots have what it takes to stop the Bus. With most of the same Patriot players back from January, look for another great defensive job on these two guys.
Oh, by the way, Belichick knew what to do with Vrabel. He hired him.
And if Cowher is planning any different looks for the Patriots, you can bet that Belichick and Romeo Crennel are doing the same, and more. For all the props that Cowher gets as a coach, time and time again Cowher has shown that he can be outcoached in key games. Cowher's strength is motivating players, not X's and O's. Belichick made monkeys out of both Cowher and Mike Martz on the way to a championship. If there is a way to stop anyone or any new plan from the Steeler offense, Belichick will find a way to do it.
The Patriots may not be able to establish a solid running game against those terrific Steeler linebackers. That may not be necessary. With new weapons like Donald Hayes, Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, Deion Branch and David Givens, Tom Brady will be able to be more creative on offense. This may be a situation where Brady will need to pass to set up the run. The Steelers do not have an exceptional secondary, but Brady will need to have some time to try and hit receivers beyond ten yards. And if Lee Flowers tackles Brady dirty again, Steeler Nation will find out quickly that in Jay Fiedler, the Dolphins kept the wrong guy.
The home field should give the Patriots a big boost. The glamour of the new stadium in and of itself should drive up the Patriot adrenalin quite a bit. The Patriots were 2-0 in the preseason in their new digs, but that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee. Still, the home town team will relish their first-ever game in the Big Razor Blade that means something.
Finally, the Patriots will be more angry than the Steelers. Nobody who swears allegiance to the Steelers buys this fact, least of all the players. All offseason long, the Patriots have heard about what a fluke they are. They were judged one of the worst championship teams in sports history. The Raiders held a demonstration at an officials' meeting. The Rams choose to emphasize that they blew the Super Bowl more than the Patriots won it. And the Steelers? Hah. No embellishment necessary.
Actually, the more negative sentiment heaped on the Patriots, the better. The madder the Patriots are, the more you should pity their poor opponents. Lawyer Milloy was cranky with the media on Monday, and that was viewed as a good sign. You know that the Steelers want the Patriots. The trouble is that the Patriots want the Steelers worse.
But nobody outside of the northeast region is buying this. It's like saying, "What color is the left field wall at Fenway Park?" and the answer you get is "Yankee Stadium's façade rocks!" They simply don't understand. Or, all they see is a Pittsburgh team that still is the Steel Curtain, it's still 1978, and Joe Greene is still the meanest sonofagun in the league. And when they see the Patriots, they still see a snowplow.
We're not foolish enough to guarantee a Patriot win. Most of the barometers favor the Patriots. But some of the barometers do favor the Steelers. The Patriots should win, but if they don't, here's why.
Monday Night Football. Ugh. Not only do you have to wait one more agonizing day to see your team, the Patriots have a rotten track record on this stage. They are 8-18 overall in the series. Their last appearance was a 2000 stinker against Kansas City, which they won only because the Chiefs stunk worse. Now with John Madden in the booth, the Patriots get a man who will talk a lot and say nothing. Unless the Patriots fall behind, then you'll get a lot of babble about "Gosh, the experts sure knew what they were saying when they called the Patriots a fluke! Hey, Al, you know, that number 80 for the Patriots, whoever he is, he's a player!"
To make matters worse, the Steelers are 14-4 in the Cowher Era on MNF. Not since the Steelers dropped their season finale to Jacksonville in 1998 have they lost on this stage. However, one stat does greatly favor the Patriots, and that is all four Steeler MNF losses in the Cowher Era were on the road (Jax twice, Kansas City and Miami).
The only other way the Steelers might break through and win is if Cowher finally smartens up and features a running back other than Bettis. Assuming the Patriot secondary either confuses Stewart enough or bottles up their fine corps of wideouts (in addition to Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, the Steelers picked a plum in the draft in former Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El) and force the Steelers to beat the Patriots with the run, they will have a harder time dealing with either Zereoue or Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. Why the latter was not used more in the AFC Championship game (one touch all day) is puzzling.
It is daring to discount the Steeler passing game, as they have a ton of weapons who are effective against the rest of the league. Belichick may be betting that the passing game will not beat his team as long as Stewart plays like he always does against the Patriots.
Stewart simply is not the big game quarterback everyone thinks he is. Despite his ability to put up big numbers, he is easily confused and is prone to making bad decisions. His questionable lack of smarts and maturity ("The best team doesn't always win") taint his incredible talent. If Stewart would ever approach a game like this with the mentality of "having something to prove", he might then have the kind of game the Patriots have never really seen him have.
The Steelers lead the regular season series, 11-4, but that is largely because the Steelers rarely come to Foxborough. Between 1981 and 1995, these teams met nine straight times at The Confluence, with Pittsburgh going 7-2 in that stretch. However, the Steelers are 3-1 at Foxborough including postseason, the one loss being the Fog Bowl.
It would be nice if the nation were expecting a great game, and set this game at least at "pick ‘em", even though those odds would still peeve the Patriot faithful. Right now it's the visitors by 2 ½.
We'll soon find out who is the real deal. It'll either be the guys who think they are, or the guys who know they are.
Just wondering if Shoe Shine Boy Kraft needed to bring Madden into the Patriot trophy room, just to remind him of the meaning of "the real deal". Actually, in a recent interview Madden quickly said "New England" when asked who was the surprise team of the preseason. Why? "Because nobody believes in them! But I saw them win a Super Bowl!"
Nobody still does. Such as life as an underdog.
And the Patriots will wear that big "U" with pride on Monday night.
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