PITTSBURGH – You might have been better served by reading less this week.
You’d be hard pressed to find any scribe, reporter or expert who would tell you that the Patriots had any kind of chance to win Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. The spread is Steelers by 9 ½, the Patriots have to go on the road, and most everyone on the planet thinks the Patriots struck their final deal with the devil with the fumble-er-uh-incomplete pass last Sunday night, and that the devil will call in all his markers on Sunday at Condiment Stadium.
AFC Championship Game
12:30 PM EST
WBZ Channel 4 in Boston
Steelers by 9 1/2
All Patriot Nation has to hold on to is a terrific record of shutting down Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis in the last four meetings, both in the playoffs and the regular season. Bettis has a groin pull just like in the Fog Bowl, but Stewart actually has some receivers to throw to, unlike the previous meetings.
Just like last week, the football world suffers from a huge case of ignorance where the Patriots are involved. They look at the Steelers and see 13-3, The Bus, The Man Formerly Known As Slash, two 1,000-yard wideouts, and a linebacker corps to die for. They totally ignore what the northeast has enjoyed watching since two jet planes slammed into the World Trade Center, and one Jet linebacker slammed into The Franchise.
And our position has not changed all week long. We’re okay with this. Go ahead and ignore the Patriots. Take them lightly. Tell Steeler Nation to keep their focus on how many different recipes for Jambalaya they can find on the Internet. Tell Kay Cowher to make sure to take extra time on her Sunday makeup, because as so go the Steelers, so go her private box television shots. Tell her twin sister that the same applies to her, also.
Does Myra Kraft ever worry about her tube time? Heck, half the time she’s looking through binoculars.
Meanwhile, the cranky Patriots trudge forward towards their Sunday date with the Steelers at the Big Ketchup Bottle. The team has had to deal with stuff like Ty Law’s big mouth, Lawyer Milloy’s pride, and Antowain Smith’s sore foot. At least the name Terry Glenn hasn’t come up all week – until now, darnit.
Steeler Nation has every right to feel smug. Patriot Nation loves it, and naturally knows better. Nobody here is guaranteeing a win, but there is certainly no way that the Steelers go walkin’ to New Orleans without a tough fight that they may ultimately lose.
The Patriots cannot play the Steelers like they did in the second quarter at Carolina or the first half against Oakland. Weather does not look like it will be a factor, and no snow this weekend looks pretty good for the Pats after last week’s Snow Bowl where the Raiders seemed to have better footing than the Patriots. The Patriots will have every chance to win Sunday if they at least begin by bringing their “A” game to Heinz Field.
Okay, so they bring their “A” game. Does their “A” game matter if Pittsburgh also brings theirs? Yes, and here’s how. Ranked in order, here are five reasons why the Patriots can win Sunday, and should do so if they play smart, hard and tough.
#5 – If Plan A fails, who’s got the best Plan B?
Bill Belichick has not received enough credit this week. But Bill Cowher certainly has. It’s time to tip the scales back towards the northeast in this area.
Cowher deserves all the props due him for his stunning career record in Pittsburgh. Given the unenviable task of replacing a massive coaching legend named Chuck Noll, Cowher has done his level best to extend and enhance the exquisite Steeler legacy. He has led the Steelers to three AFC title games and one Super Bowl. Add to that the constant retooling of the team due to free agency losses, and Cowher shines brightly as an NFL head coach.
But Belichick missed NFL Coach Of The Year narrowly to Chicago’s Dick Jauron, and we wonder how. All Belichick needed to do was to improve his people skills (should Berj Najarian be Executive Of The Year, and not Scott Pioli?), and he’d then be the total package. This year has borne that out, thanks to the idiocy of Glenn, the tragedy of Dick Rehbein and the injury to Drew Bledsoe.
Belichick gives the Patriots the edge in coaching. He figures to out-maneuver Cowher in Sunday’s game. If in-game adjustments prove to be decisive, the Patriots will win. Belichick has shown this propensity all year long. He is the master “game manager”, and should give the Patriots a huge advantage if the Patriots should be leading by a touchdown or more in the second half.
Meanwhile, Cowher has to deal with past failures. Despite having been to three AFC title games, Cowher’s record is only 1-2, and all three of those games were played at home. His only win was followed by a Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys. His 1994 squad took San Diego way too lightly, and his 1997 squad was actually a home dog to Denver (the Broncos won and covered).
#4 – Tear off them shackles, Charlie
Number 5 actually segues nicely into number four. Belichick has the luxury of two of the best top assistants in the game today. With Romeo Crennel leading the defense and Charlie Weis running the offense, these two men have had a great deal to do with the success of the team, especially in the last seven games.
Weis will be under great scrutiny on Sunday, as he holds the fourth-biggest key to victory on Sunday. Tom Brady played under a heavy load of shackles last Saturday night against Oakland. Once the shackles came off, Brady started completing passes at a 77 percent clip. He ripped off ten in a row in the fourth quarter in one stretch and went eight-for-eight in overtime. Hmmmm.
Weis needs to open up the playbook and place his trust in Brady. It is about time that the football world, the New England chapter included, finally owns up to the fact that Brady is big time and can do a big time job on Sunday. A game plan must be tapered to accommodate the fierce pass rush of the Steeler linebackers, but it can and must be done.
Troy Brown and David Patten don’t figure to get smothered like they were Saturday night, but conversely Jermaine Wiggins doesn’t project out to another ten reception game. What Weis ought to do is to feature J.R. Redmond and Kevin Faulk in flat pass routes for starters, then look for Brown and Patten to test the weak Steeler cornerback duo (Chad Scott, Dwayne Washington) if Brady can get the time. Whichever passing philosophy Weis chooses is really predicated upon how well the Patriot offensive line is handling Pittsburgh’s blitzes, and Belichick has made all running backs realize their importance at picking up blockers all week long.
Redmond had a very intriguing game Saturday night against Oakland. Largely disappointing since being taken in the third round last year, Redmond has shown to be a much better receiving back than rusher. If Brady can find Redmond in the flats, either by screen or by dumpoff passes, Redmond can make some hay, especially if Steeler outside linebackers are blitzing and Brady can get the ball off in time.
The worst thing Weis can do is to go conservative. It is not likely that Antowain Smith will bludgeon the top rushing defense in the NFL. Brady has to be given the chance to win this game, which goes counter to the thinking last week. As he led the Patriots from behind to defeat the Raiders, Brady proved everyone wrong, as he has done all year long.
#3 – How much “Slash” is still there?
Everyone in Pittsburgh is singing the praises of Stewart, and how improved he is. And with good reason. But one has to wonder what people would be saying about Stewart if all he had to throw to were Yancey Thigpen and Andre Hastings and not Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress.
Law opened up his big yap this week. After his huge game Saturday night, his best since signing his huge contract, Law has a reason to feel high and mighty. But instead of Jerry Rice and Tim Brown slowed down by snow, this week Law and Otis Smith get two greyhounds and no snow to slow them down.
What Belichick and Crennel would like to do, other than to stuff a sock in Law’s mouth, is to stop Pittsburgh’s run game with seven in the box, and play cover-two behind it. That way, Law and Smith can gamble and play aggressively, with Milloy and Tebucky Jones behind them to cover their tails if they mess up. But if Milloy needs to come up and help stop the run, it may be bad for the Patriots.
Therefore, the Patriots may need to short circuit the Steelers at the source. Stewart may be better than he was in 1996-98, but he can be dealt with. Tedi Bruschi, who plays the shadow routine a lot, may have to shadow Stewart to prevent him from scrambling. If Stewart remains in the pocket, then the cover-two might cause him to make bad decisions. Belichick is a master at confusing quarterbacks, and Stewart is a prime candidate for confusion.
This line of strategy is really contingent upon the next key to the game, because if key number two fails, key three has no chance to succeed.
#2 — Put away the romance novels now, TJ
The Patriots absolutely must stop the Steeler running attack, somehow. Easier said than done? Is the Pope Catholic?
Bettis, Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala represent one of the most imposing trio of running backs in quite some time. The Steelers are 5-1 without Bettis. Look at how the Steelers manhandled the Ravens last week without Bettis. It is a daunting task for the Patriots.
But the Patriots have an ace in the hole, if he gets a chance to play. Ted Johnson has been there on the other side of the ball in each of the previous four meetings. He has a history of stopping Bettis, and ought to see lots of middle linebacker duty in obvious run situations. It might mean moving Bruschi to the outside and bumping out Mike Vrabel, but Johnson has a history of slowing down The Bus.
Unfortunately, Bettis has a history of slowing down Johnson also. In the most recent of the aforementioned four meetings, Bettis boomed up the middle, and Johnson tried to arm tackle The Bus. Result: Bettis tore Johnson’s bicep muscle. Johnson has not been the same player since, and this injury likely curtailed a stellar career for the Patriot run stopper.
The Patriots might have wanted to go to a 3-4 base defense for this game to get Johnson in there, but Carolina’s Richard Huntley perhaps dashed any thoughts of a 3-4 this Sunday. If the Patriots are privately entertaining any thoughts of a 3-4 to stop the run, one alignment that might work would be a line of Bobby Hamilton-Richard Seymour-Anthony Pleasant, and a linebacker corps of Roman Phifer-Bruschi-Johnson-Willie McGinest. Brandon Mitchell will be there to give the starters a blow, and Vrabel will be there if McGinest is ineffective.
However, look for a 4-3 base this week. If Bruschi has problems stuffing Bettis or any other Steeler running back, Johnson has to get a chance to see what he can do.
#1 – If all else fails, there’s always their kicker
What must Scott Norwood think of Kris Brown?
This last, and most important key of all, is predicated upon each of the first four not working out. For as good as the Steelers are, how strange it is that they possess a field goal kicker that is a bad as he is. Brown’s inconsistency is such that if the game comes down to a field goal duel, the Patriots win this game easy.
If the Patriots are unable to keep the Steeler offense in check no matter what Belichick and Crennel come up with, the Patriots may still be okay. What will then have to happen is to let the Steelers have their way between the 20s. Then, the league’s best red zone defense will have to go to work.
This is the game’s best equalizer, and can take away whatever advantage, be it real or perceived, that the Steelers might have. The Steelers are 29th in the league in red zone offense, and Brown made only 30 of 44 field goals this year. The Patriots have yielded only two offensive touchdowns since the second Jets game, one of which was a garbage time touchdown (Miami). All this adds up to a great amount of weight being heaped on the shoulders of one of the most inconsistent field goal kickers in recent memory.
On the other hand, Adam Vinatieri should be counted on to make any clutch kick that he needs to. Vinatieri’s game-tying 45-yard field goal Saturday night was a line shot into a driving snowstorm, a shot which moved one Boston writer to call it the greatest field goal in NFL history. That may be overstating it a bit, but there can be no denying that it was a huge kick by anyone’s standards.
Some experts have noted that one reason why Brown misses so many kicks is the strange wind currents at Heinz Field. If you use Saturday night as a judge, this again favors Vinatieri and hurts the Steelers greatly. If the wind is a factor, Vinatieri’s booming leg should find its way, while the psyched-out Brown will suffer.
This strategy would thus affect the defensive philosophy of the Patriots. If Belichick determines that his team cannot stop the run, he might elect to play a prevent-type defense, designed to prevent the big play but giving up a ton of yardage underneath. As long as the Steelers do not strike for long scoring plays, the Patriots might be all the better for it. The Patriots will kill for a game where Brown and only Brown can win it for the Steelers.
It won’t be long now. The Patriots are ready to show everyone that they are for real. All the pressure will be on the Steelers, who remain a solid favorite. If it means anything, the Patriots are 2-0 in AFC title games, whereas the Steelers are 5-5.
The Patriots don’t want anyone to use the word “destiny” around them. Fine. We’re not around them now. The Patriots have exactly all the ingredients to win a game that they lose by a mile on paper. The biggest ingredient of all is “destiny”.
But just in case, if all else fails, just line that Steeler kicker up and let him fly.
And the Patriots might just fly to New Orleans along with him.