January 23, 2005
Riding The Patriots Bus To Jacksonville
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
PITTSBURGH -- Here is why no human being claiming sanity should ever bet against the Patriots.
A week ago, the top offense in the league came to Foxborough and was held to only three points.
This week, the Patriots faced the top defense in the league and scored 41 points against them in their house.
Amidst reports surfacing that Terrell Owens will likely miss Super Bowl XXXIX, a game he was expected to be able to play in if his Eagle team made it that far, the Patriots are now left with a team they beat 31-10 at the Linc during Week 2 of last year standing between them and a second straight world championship and third in four years. The Patriots rule western Pennsylvania, thanks to a resounding 41-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. The Patriots now head to Jacksonville to try and conquer the eastern half of the Keystone State and vault their way into NFL history.
One of the keys to a Patriot win was to make sure Jerome Bettis (who, according to CBS’ Bonnie Bernstein, was going to call it a career if he lost this game) was well contained. The Steelers knew they needed to ride The Bus to Jacksonville, but it was the Patriots instead who rode The Bus. It wasn’t a complete shut down job like the 2001 AFC Championship Game; Bettis gained 64 yards in 17 carries. The key here was his 3.8 yards per carry average, combined with the fact that he never took over the game like he was supposed to have. Other than a 25-yard run around left end near the end of the third quarter which helped set up a field goal and a touchdown run earlier in the quarter, Bettis made few, if any, runs of consequence.
Perhaps even more critical in this Patriot win was their stuff job on Duce Staley. The “other” back netted only 26 yards on ten carries. The most effective rusher was Ben Roethlisberger, who averaged nine yards on five scrambles, one of which was actually a quarterback draw in the second quarter. Had Bill Belichick known going into the game that Roethlisberger would be the best runner for the Steelers, he would have been very relaxed all throughout the game.
This lack of run effectiveness forced the Steelers to do something they were loath to do, and that was to try and put the game squarely in the hands of the rookie Roethlisberger. He wound up suffering his first career loss as a pro thanks largely to three interceptions and 14 of 24 passing. He finished with a 78.1 rating, a final number which got a boost thanks to a good third quarter; his first half rating was an abysmal 36.1.
And except for a stretch which lasted just over a quarter, where the Steelers scored 17 points on three consecutive drives, the Patriots dominated the Steelers in a way which 16-1 teams don’t usually suffer. Tom Brady further cemented his legacy as the best playoff quarterback since Joe Montana, Belichick pulled even with Vince Lombardi in career record in the postseason, and the Patriots continue their legendary winning ways with a second straight trip to the Big Show, leaving the best offense and defense in their wake.
As the Steelers were unable to get their rushing game going, so were the Patriots. Corey Dillon rambled for 25 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter, but had only 48 yards on the other 23 carries. Part of the problem here was the usage of plays which called for Dillon to run laterally behind the line of scrimmage instead of pounding the ball up the middle; his best runs other than the touchdown scamper were runs that went up the gut when he was able to build up a head of steam.
It came down to Brady needing to step up, and step up he did, finishing with a 130.5 rating. He fired two touchdown passes, had none intercepted, and managed a perfect game. Two of his passes were deep balls to Deion Branch, who also missed the initial October contest. Brady found Branch on a deep post pattern for 60 yards early in the game on a play where he looked off Troy Polamalu and left Deshea Townsend in single coverage on Branch. Brady also found Branch in a deep zone seam for 45 yards before Polamalu recovered in time to clobber Branch. Two plays later, Brady found David Givens on a quick screen right for a nine-yard touchdown.
One of Roethlisberger’s three interceptions went for a defensive touchdown. Big Ben drove his Steelers from their own 23 to the Patriot 19 midway through the second period. He then tried to hit tight end Jerame Tuman in the right flat, and admitted in a postgame press conference that he “tried to stick in there” and regretted it. Rodney Harrison, who was injured twice during the game and needed assistance in leaving the field, slipped in front of Tuman and picked it off. He lumbered down the left sideline, with only Roethlisberger left to beat. Mike Vrabel was running with him, and Harrison slowed up just enough to let Vrabel lay a block on Big Ben. Harrison skipped by him and walked in to complete the 87-yard return.
It was 24-3 Patriots at the half, and the Patriots were to get the ball to start the second half. Charlie Weis admonished his troops to go for the kill, but the Steelers were the ones who came out of the locker room with fire in their bellies, and put on a rush which was almost enough to overcome the world champs.
The third quarter began with a three-and-out punctuated by a Joey Porter sack of Brady after putting a whale of a spin move on Matt Light. Roethlisberger responded with a 57-yard drive in five plays, where a quick screen to Antwaan Randle El for 34 yards set up a five-yard scoring run by Bettis. Brady answered with a touchdown drive (Dillon’s 25-yard run), but this drive was aided by two very costly Steeler penalties (a holding call on Aaron Smith which, had he allowed Kevin Faulk to catch a flat pass on third and 17, would have been stopped way short of a first down, and a personal foul on Clark Haggans) which kept the drive going.
Down 31-10, Roethlisberger drove his team from his own 40 to the Patriot 30. Facing fourth down and five, Roethlisberger dropped back, rolled left and spotted a wide-open Hines Ward along the left sideline. He lollypopped a soft toss to Ward, and he took it the entire way. A three-and-out gave the Steelers the ball back, and on the final two plays of the third quarter, Pittsburgh got a 25-yard run by Bettis and a 26-yard left flat toss to Ward to put the Steelers at the Patriot 4.
In the fourth quarter, the Patriots reassumed full control of the game. First and goal at the four became fourth and goal at the two, and Bill Cowher made the curious decision of kicking a 20-yard field goal. Jeff Reed connected, but the wind was taken out of both the Steeler players and the home crowd. The Patriots would score ten points on their next two drives to ice it, sandwiching Adam Vinatieri’s second field goal and a Branch 23-yard touchdown run on an end around around a Eugene Wilson interception. A meaningless Steeler touchdown at the end didn’t even upset the bookies.
So off the Patriots go to the Super Bowl once again. The Patriots remain unbeaten in AFC Championship Games in their history (5-0). Two weeks remain until the Patriots and Eagles kickoff for the NFL championship. Once again, Belichick manhandles a quarterback while getting a second look, the Patriots do everything they need to do to win, and they send the Heinz Field crowd home early, disillusioned and disappointed.
Hop on the bus. The one that says “Belichick”, not “Bettis”. See you in Florida soon.
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