January 20, 2005
Experience Will Be The Difference for Patriots
BY: Kevin Rousseau
In the end, I suppose, it had to come down to the Steelers and Patriots.
Last week, the line being fed from this space was that the winner of the Colts-Patriots game was going to win the Super Bowl.
I was wrong.
It’s this weekend’s AFC Championship tilt that will be the deciding game for the 2004 season.
Mercifully, the Football Gods set the world back on its axis last weekend with Steeler and Patriot wins in the Divisional round. What was I thinking? Defense and running games win championships, silly rabbit.
So now we are down to two teams in the AFC. Two teams who are very similar in a lot of ways. Both are very physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Both base their offense around an excellent running game. Both have loyal, strong fan bases that know how to use the home field to their team’s advantage. And both are teams who will make you pay if you feed them turnovers.
To be sure, there aren’t going to be a lot of schemes and plays drawn up in the dirt on Sunday evening in Pittsburgh. Nope. It’s going to be a hat-on-hat, we-are-going-to run-it-down-your throat type of game. Mix in an interesting playoff history between the two teams, the Halloween Massacre and then if you like old school football, well, this is your game.
So just where does all of this leave us?
I think it leads us to another Patriots visit to the Big Game. And here’s why:
First, experience matters. It matters because having it doesn’t rattle you when you have a temporary setback like a turnover deep in your own end. It matters when you have to either stop or convert a big drive late in the fourth quarter. It matters that your quarterback doesn’t get rattled at the first sign of a tight game with a lot at stake. And it matters when you have a coaching staff that won’t jump out of what brought them this far.
And perhaps most importantly, it matters because if you have a Hall of Fame kicker in Adam Vinatieri like the Patriots do, each field goal attempt doesn’t become an adventure like we’ve seen the last few weeks in these AFC playoffs. The Steelers Jeff Reed has had an excellent year, going 28 for 33 in field goal attempts, but until you hit a few to win a Super Bowl with the clock hitting single digits, I’ll give the edge to the Patriots if it comes down to a field goal attempt at the end.
A tangent off of this discussion leads to a comparison of the two quarterbacks. Tom Brady just plays better the bigger the game. Period. A career 7-0 record in the playoffs doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because he’s got “it.” “It” is that thing that Magic and Larry had. “It” is the thing that would make the rest of us curl up in ball and throw up if we faced that type of pressure. On the other side of the ball, Ben Roethlisberger has seen his play tail off towards the end of the regular season and during last week’s game against the Jets. And by many reports, he is nursing a thumb and rib injury to boot. If Big Ben floats a few interceptions towards “that depleted secondary” it could be a long evening for those Terrible Towel wavers at Heinz Field. However, if the Steelers can grind out the clock on the ground and Roethlisberger can make a few big throws when called upon, the fairy tale might continue in Western Pennsylvania.
While using the experience factor as the prime determination for analyzing Sunday’s game, one just can’t leave out the coaching matchup. With a win on Sunday, Bill Belichick will tie (hold your breath) Vince Lombardi for the best playoff record among coaches who have been in at least six games at 9-1. On the other side, Bill Cowher is 1-3 in AFC championship tilts and one has to wonder if that is weighing in the back of the minds of Steeler Nation. Besides, if you are a Patriot fan you have to like the idea of Belichick and Co. getting another crack to game plan against these guys. Historically, in a second matchup with a team during the same season, the Belichick-coached Patriots have had a much better approach to the game, and the Dolphins game aside, typically prevail.
Don’t believe me? Just call Peyton Manning off the golf course and ask him his thoughts on the issue.
Look, I’m not discounting the Steelers’ ability to possibly win this game. If they can contain Corey Dillon, establish the running game enough that their receivers can exploit some one-on-one coverage, use their impressive home field to their advantage and create a few turnovers, it could easily add up to a Steelers win.
I could be wrong but I just don’t think I will be on this one. I have some experience on these matters.
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