January 25, 2005
Grogan's Grade: AFC Championship
BY: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
R.R. Marshall: Steve, as it turned out the experts who installed the Patriots as the favorites in the AFC Championship Game were correct. New England crushed Pittsburgh 41-27 to return to the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. I guess this is just to be expected of this team now?
Steve Grogan: You just know the Patriots are going to win now. If you look at the final stats from the game it was a pretty evenly played game, with both teams putting up about the same kind of offensive numbers. The Steelers have a good football team and I think everyone including myself expected a close, low-scoring game and it ended up being a track meet and a very high-scoring affair. Both teams shut down the run very well and the difference came down to the two quarterbacks. Tom Brady played very well and the rookie Ben Roethlisberger played okay, but he threw three interceptions and that really hurt the Steelers.
RRM: The Colts are a team that likes to throw the ball downfield which they didn’t do against the Patriots. The Steelers are a running team that tried to pass their way past New England. Why do teams alter their game plans so radically against the Patriots?
SG: I think probably because they have so much respect for the Patriots team and the coaching staff that they know that the Patriots can take away their strength. They know they only way they are going to beat them is to go to something else. If you look at the score in this game, that’s a score you would have expected to have in the Colts’ game! Conversely the score in the Colts’ game (20-3) was probably one you would have expected in the Pittsburgh game! The Patriots are just so good at taking away people’s strengths. Their defensive front just stuffed their running game and didn’t give them anything, and really forced the Steelers to have to throw the football. They weren’t up to the task, and that’s the reason they’ll be watching the Super Bowl at home on TV.
RRM: For a game that was marked with so much physical play it was very cleanly played. There were only three penalties called the entire game (one on the Patriots and two on the Steelers) which was kind of surprising?
SG: It was either very cleanly played or the officials left the flags in their pocket and just let the two teams play. There was a little more trash talking going on than normal in this game. Tedy Bruschi especially was so fired up for the game that he was in Jerome Bettis’ face every time he made a tackle. You just don’t see that happen with these Patriots’ players that often, but given that this was a Championship Game and the Steelers had been the team that had beaten them so badly to end their winning streak back in October I could understand why they were so fired up. I hope that trend towards trash talking doesn’t continue because in my opinion they’re good enough without having to get in people’s faces after making tackles.
RRM: The Patriots have so many inexperienced no-names in their defensive backfield like Asante Samuel and Randall Gay who have stepped up in the postseason. Is it just the system, or are these players better than we should have given them credit for?
SG: I think they’re good players or they wouldn’t be doing what they’ve been doing. But I think it’s another example of Bill Belichick and his staff finding smart football players that will do what they’re told to do when they’re told to do it. They have a bunch of young players back there that are drinking the Kool-Aid, buying into the program and they are coachable and teachable, and when they are properly prepared they can really play. The legend of Bill Belichick just keeps growing. This team doesn’t seem to lose a beat when they lose their big guns. The Patriots have won two playoff games without their All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour, and who would have thought that was possible? Injuries just doesn’t seem to make a difference with this team.
RRM: Tom Brady is now 8-0 in playoff games and is only one game behind Hall of Game Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr for setting the all-time won-lost record for quarterbacks in the postseason. Isn’t that pretty lofty status for someone who won’t see the age of 30 for awhile?
SG: It is amazing, isn’t it? Tom Brady is a quarterback that just seems to play better in big games. Against a team that he struggled against in the regular season he just came out and made no mistakes whatsoever. He just seems to thrive in pressure situations and his record in playoff games is all the evidence you need.
RRM: Last week you talked about the tremendous advantage an experienced quarterback has in these types of pressure-filled games. Brady’s 60-yard touchdown bomb to Deion Branch that put the Patriots up 10-0 early was a huge play, but didn’t he make it possible by looking off the free safety on that play?
SG: The play that Brady made on that touchdown was just a tremendous read and throw on his part. You could see on the replay that he looked right to the end routes, checked back really quickly to make sure that Branch had position, looked right again, and then came back to the left. He absolutely sold the free safety that he was about to throw the end route, and that’s why he jumped it and Brady went right over the top of him.
RRM: The fact that Corey Dillon did not play in the regular season game between the two clubs received a lot of play in the media leading up to the rematch. But everyone seemed to forget that Deion Branch didn’t play in that game as well and he ended up having the most impact (153 yards of total offense) of any of the skill players on the field!
SG: I can’t come down on the local media too hard because I had totally forgotten about that until I heard it on TV. Deion Branch was huge in this game. He had a couple of big catches and ran the reverse twice including one that went for a touchdown. He was probably the MVP of the game.
RRM: As a former quarterback were you glad to see Brady do away with the glove on his throwing hand for the playoffs this year?
SG: Yes, I was. I think he throws the ball so much better without that glove and I guess he finally came to that conclusion himself. We’ll make an old-timer out of him yet!
RRM: The final statistics show that Brady completed 14 of his 21 throws for 207 yards, but he completed four of his eight attempts that were over 15 yards. I thought he couldn’t throw the long ball?
SG: Brady was putting the ball down the field in this game against a pretty aggressive Pittsburgh defense. What was surprising to me was that they were giving him that. I don’t know if people still don’t believe he can throw the ball deep or not, but he’s certainly shown me that he can go deep. The opposition had better start doing a better job defending against it because we’ve seen the kind of damage he can do to even the best defensive secondaries.
RRM: The comparisons between Tom Brady and Joe Montana continue to come more frequently with each Super Bowl win. Montana was known for his ability to throw on the run, and the throw Brady made while rolling to his right to convert a third down to David Givens along the sideline late in the game reminded me of vintage Montana. What was your take on that play?
SG: It was as tough a play as you can ask a quarterback to make. It’s unusual for him because that’s not a throw he makes a lot because he’s not running out of the pocket very often. Seeing him make that kind of throw under those conditions just solidifies the fact that he can do it all.
RRM: Brady’s counterpart Ben Roethlisberger didn’t fare so well in this game. Did the pressure get to the rookie in the big game or was the Patriots’ defense just too tough a puzzle for him to crack?
SG: Actually I didn’t think he played all that badly outside of the three interceptions. The first interception to me was very crucial because when you start off a game that way I think it puts doubts in your mind right from the start. On that throw the ball was tipped by Asante Samuel and then grabbed by Eugene Wilson, but Tedy Bruschi was flashing right in front of the receiver just as he was releasing the ball and that’s why he threw it high. He came back to make some good throws later in the game but he was still forcing some things.
RRM: There was a lot of speculation that he was playing hurt, in particular a bad thumb on his throwing hand. Do you feel that accounted for the balls he overthrew by a mile?
SG: I really don’t think so. If you go back and look at the replay Bruschi was running underneath the receiver and Roethlisberger saw him at the last second and he was trying to get the ball high and outside and away from Bruschi and the ball ended up going over the receiver’s head. That’s what happened.
RRM: The most costly interception Roethlisberger threw came at the end of the first half when it appeared the Steelers were going in for a score and instead Rodney Harrison returned the pick 87 yards to give the Patriots a comfortable 21-point cushion at halftime. Did the wily veteran set the rookie up on that one?
SG: That play by Harrison really did put the Patriots in the driver’s seat. He baited the rookie quarterback on that one just a little. I think he wound up being in a place where Roethlisberger didn’t expect him to be and he wound up making the pick. Being the smart veteran that he is Harrison waited for Mike Vrabel to catch up so he could make the block on Roethlisberger way downfield. Fortunately there was no one else chasing Harrison because it looked like he was running out of gas as he got near the endzone [laughs].
RRM: That raises the question where were all the other Steelers’ skill players on that play? Did they just give up and not bother to chase after Harrison?
SG: There’s been a lot of discussion by the media about that. I don’t know whether the Steelers' players just gave up or as smart as this Patriots’ football team is they started knocking guys to the ground knowing that’s what you’re supposed to do even though the ball is 20 yards down the field. But it all started with Harrison who is just another big game player. He just shows up for big games and makes plays, and that one was arguably the biggest play of the game.
RRM: This makes four losses for Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher in the AFC Championship Game. Despite his ability to mold together winning teams with whatever talent he has on the roster you know he will get criticized for this loss. Do you think that is unfair to him?
SG: I think so. Bill Cowher is a very good football coach, and all he can do is put together a game plan and put his players on the field like any other coach. His Steelers just haven’t had enough talent to get over the hump and that really isn’t his fault. He’s someone that has been there longer than any coach in the NFL with the same team and he’s been very successful. I just don’t think you can label him as being a bad football coach because he hasn’t won that often in the AFC Championship Game.
RRM: Bill Belichick has a chance to make history with a win in the Super Bowl. Is it too soon to consider referring to him as the greatest head coach of all-time?
SG: They may to remain the championship trophy the Belichick Trophy because he tied Vince Lombardi’s playoff record of 9-1 and can surpass it with a win in the Super Bowl. That’s really unbelievable. I’ve been around the game for a long time, and I don’t know how he does it year-in and year-out with all the changes in personnel, the injuries they suffered, and the changes in the coaching staff. They just seem to keep winning, and there’s no longer any doubt he will go done as one of the very best.
RRM: I’ll ask you strictly for your first impression for the big game two weeks down the road. Do you see anything from the Philadelphia Eagles in their win in the NFC Championship Game that concerns you, or have the Patriots already played the two other best teams in football and the Super Bowl will be only a mere formality?
SG: I think if the Eagles get Terrell Owens back then they’re passing attack scares me a little bit. The Patriots have been installed as the solid favorite going into this game and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be.
RRM: What are Grogan's grades for the win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game?
SG: There’s no question they deserve an A+ for the performance they put on against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. You just don’t win that easily in a conference championship game, and they did just that. We talked about a few of the players but I thought Vince Wilfork and Keith Traylor deserve mention. They were both getting great penetration in the running game, and they were just driving Pittsburgh’s Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings backwards. They effectively stalemated him which allowed the Patriots’ linebackers to make the tackles. Even though neither one of them ended up on the stat sheet with a tackle I thought they both played great. It was a great effort by the entire team and one that was good enough to get them back to the Super Bowl. Now we’ll have something to take our minds of the dismal New England weather for the next two weeks!
Hey Pats Fans! Be back here at www.patsfans.com next week for Steve’s preview of Super Bowl XXXIX. Any guesses as to who he’ll be picking??
A veteran writer on the Boston sports scene, R. R. Marshall has written features for both local and national sports publications for more than a decade. His popular Q & A columns on the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, and Boston College Eagles appear year round in magazines and on websites. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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