- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

PITTSBURGH — Let there be no doubt about the New England Patriots’ dominance of the postseason.

The defending Super Bowl champions raced ahead early and piled it on late in last night’s AFC Championship game at Heinz Field, thumping the Pittsburgh Steelers 41-27 and extending the second-longest unbeaten streak in NFL playoff history to eight games.

Next up is Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., where New England (16-2) will shoot for dynasty status in the form of a third championship in four years and a tie with the Green Bay Packers’ record playoff winning streak of nine in a row from 1961 to 1967.

Playing in bitter cold conditions before 65,242, the Patriots established a 21-point halftime lead by picking apart Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and having their own Montana-esque quarterback, Tom Brady, connect on 60- and 45-yard bombs to wide receiver Deion Branch.

“We have a lot of good players on this team, and they stepped up and played their best in the most important games,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who is tied with Vince Lombardi for the best all-time playoff record (9-1). “It’s a real credit to our players and their ability to play well under pressure.”

Pittsburgh, which won the Oct.31 meeting between the clubs and finished the regular season as only the fourth 15-1 team in NFL history, pulled as close as 11 points in the fourth quarter but couldn’t complete the comeback.

Roethlisberger, who entered with a 15-0 record, became another notch in Belichick’s belt. By stuffing the Steelers’ second-ranked run game and mixing up coverages, the game-planning wizard of a coach coaxed the NFL rookie of the year into two interceptions in the first half and a game-sealing toss into the hands of safety Eugene Wilson with 7:29 remaining.

“We do some things that are different, but it’s not anything exotic,” linebacker Ted Johnson explained. “It’s just basic fronts and coverages, and you try to switch things around a little bit. The big point was to neutralize the run. Their whole offense is based around that.”

The defeat was the Steelers’ fourth in five trips to the AFC title game under coach Bill Cowher. Pittsburgh (16-2) also lost the 2001 championship game to the Patriots and last night couldn’t crawl within single digits in the second half as New England systematically answered each thrust.

Running back Corey Dillon, for example, ran for a 25-yard touchdown when Pittsburgh trimmed the deficit to 14 points shortly after halftime. Then kicker Adam Vinatieri booted a 31-yard field goal after the Patriots’ lead dwindled to 11 points midway through the fourth quarter. And, in the crushing blow moments later, Wilson made a diving pick of an overthrow by Roethlisberger.

“They just outplayed us,” Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. “That’s the first time that happened all year.”

Roethlisberger picked up where he left off against the New York Jets eight days earlier — in rough shape. His first pick came on the game’s third play, when he overthrew Antwaan Randle El. The ball tipped off Randle El’s hand, bounced off cornerback Asante Samuel and was scooped by Wilson before it could hit the ground. Four plays later, Vinatieri hit a 48-yard field goal.

That was the way New England’s defense, overshadowed by the Steelers’ top-ranked unit in the days leading up to the game, played pretty much all night. Pittsburgh, for instance, advanced into Patriots territory on its next possession but was stonewalled on fourth down. Running back Jerome Bettis needed just a foot and a half but couldn’t find a seam.

Johnson received credit from teammates for standing Bettis up, but he couldn’t confirm making the play. What he did know was this: “That was a huge tone-setter.”

Particularly because Branch followed with the first of his two big catches. This one went 60 yards for a touchdown when Branch got a step on cornerback Ike Taylor, and Brady threw a strike. The availability of Branch and Dillon, who both missed the Oct.31 meeting, clearly was huge for New England.

Pittsburgh’s defense played tough on the Patriots’ next two possessions, but Branch broke through again with eight minutes left in the half. This reception was even more impressive; Branch held on to a 45-yard pass despite a huge hit from safety Troy Polamalu. Two plays later the Patriots went ahead 17-3 on a quick screen to David Givens.

Pittsburgh briefly flashed the potential to keep it close. Roethlisberger hit a 28-yard pass to Hines Ward and converted a third-and-5 with a 7-yard run. But safety Rodney Harrison stepped in front of a short pass to tight end Jerame Tuman and darted 87 yards for a critical blow to the Steelers.

“That’s a 10- or a 14-point swing,” Brady said. “At that point, we were feeling pretty good about the situation. Anytime a team’s down two or three touchdowns, it’s awfully hard to come back. You need to play perfect football for the rest of the game.”

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