Monday, January 24, 2005

Patriots 41, Steelers 27 (1/23/2005)

Who knew the shortest route to Jacksonville goes through Pittsburgh?
Well, that's the way the Patriots got there, with a 41-27 drubbing of the Steelers in yesterday's AFC Championship game. The win puts the Patriots in the Super Bowl two Sundays hence in Jacksonville, Florida against the Philadelphia Eagles, and gives your local 11 a chance to solidify their status as a bona fide NFL dynasty.

In many ways, the game was a mirror image of the last previous tilt with the Steelers (a 34-20 Steelers victory). Both times, the winner led 24-3 and simply milked that lead to a two-touchdown win. Both times, the losing QB threw bad interceptions that cost his team points and both QBs had one turnover returned for a touchdown. And like the first game, this one wasn't as close as the final score indicated. As I wrote last week about the previous game, it was an ass-whippin' of the first order.

The Patriots did what they always do, taking away the other team's strength. All week I heard the Steelers would run the ball even if they didn't gain many yards; just to wear down the Patriots defense. So what do they do on their first third down opportunity? (Big) Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception, a harbinger of things to come. The Patriots wanted to stop the run to put the game in the hands of the Steelers's less-than-capable rookie QB. Instead, the Steelers did it for them, with totally predictable results.

The Pats defense played very well, stuffing the running tandem of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley for 90 combined yards, and holding Big Ben to a
58.3 passer rating (down just a smidge from his 126.4 of the earlier meeting). The Steelers averaged 4.4 yards a run, but the D-line along with the versatile linebacking corps stopped them when it counted and made them try to win through the air.

And when they tried passing, Roethlisberger looked confused and frustrated, a typical rookie reaction to seeing the Patriots defensive schemes. Heck, the Pats stopped Peyton Manning, what chance did Big Ben
really have. They picked on Asante Samuel much of the day, and he came
through with great closing speed and a bunch of passes defended.
Randall Gay's name was rarely called, with the Steelers showing him respect not usually given to a rookie by throwing to the other side of the field, and Eugene Wilson picked of two passes. Perhaps the biggest turnover of all was Rodney Harrison's INT and return for touchdown, but every single INT or fumble meant another drive stopped and another opportunity for the Pats offense.

And the "O" usually cashed in. The team scored 24 points off of turnovers, with a couple of quick-strikes down the field. The Pats obviously decided to attack the deep middle, and the O-line blocked admirably against the relentless Steelers blitzing. And Tom Brady made that extra time pay with 207 yards, 2 touchdowns, and (most important) no interceptions. Deion Branch had the biggest receiving game (4 catches for 116 yards), and he, David Givens, David Patten, and Christian Fauria made tough catches at important moments. The Pats did give up two sacks, but overall the passing game worked great.

As for the anticipated showdown between Corey Dillon and the Steelers defense, well the Steelers won the battle most of the time. Dillon finished with 73 yards on 24 carries, with one touchdown. Take out Deion Branch's 37 yards on two reverses and the Pats were under 100 yards for the day. However, just the threat of the run seemed to open things up for long passes. Whenever the Steelers overcommitted to play-action fakes, the Patriots gave Brady just enough time to beat them with the pass.

The special teams were nothing special. They gave up a lot of return yards and only twice had very good returns of their own. Adam Vinatieri did kick a 48-yard field goal (tying the longest in the history of the stadium), but his kickoffs were short and some were short and low - a deadly combination. I assume this phase of the game will be better for the Super Bowl, because the ball won't be frozen in Florida.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention what a great coaching job the Pats did. They always give the other team something new to adjust to, and they always come out with a plan to score early and often (they scored first 17 times in 18 games this year). Charlie Weis will leave at the end of the year for the head coaching position at Notre Dame, and there's a good chance that Romeo Crennel will become the head man for the Cleveland Browns. So enjoy this while you can; the team might look a lot different next year.

So where does this leave us? Well, the Patriots are off for a few days before beginning their preparation for the big game against Philadelphia. The Pats beat the Eagles in 2003, but I don't suppose that will have much of an impact on the one coming up. Brady is now the only QB in history to win his first eight playoff games; Belichick is now tied with Vince Lombardi for the all-time best playoff winning percentage (9-1); and should the Patriots win the Super Bowl, they will break the record for most wins over a two-season span in NFL history (34).

As the defending Super Bowl champions, I like their chances, but I probably won't send my Super Bowl Preview email until next week. Until then, I'll probably spend most of my time scrambling around to find tickets (note: any help in that area will be rewarded with my eternal gratitude - and maybe a finder's fee), arranging for time off and coverage for my 2/8 helpdesk shift, and hoping against hope that Terrell Owens misses the game.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know, Bill Cowher just doesn't get it.
The night before the game, he showed his team a tape of their October victory over the Patriots to remind them of how great they are. Bill Belichick showed the Patriots the same tape to remind them of how much work they have to do."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 2-0!

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