- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

Pittsburgh has the AFC's best record, homefield advantage and the confidence that comes from having just emphatically ended Baltimore's reign as Super Bowl champion.
New England, the NFL's last remaining Cinderella, needed a major assist from the officials to overcome Oakland in overtime last Saturday and should be thrilled just to be in today's AFC Championship game at Heinz Field after finishing 5-11 last season.
But let's not give the Steelers the AFC's berth in next Sunday's Super Bowl just yet, although they have the NFL's top defense and third-ranked offense. The Patriots have won seven straight while the Steelers lost three games ago to lowly Cincinnati. New England has as many starters (eight) with championship game experience as does Pittsburgh and coach Bill Belichick is 3-1 in such games (as an assistant) while the Steelers' Bill Cowher is 1-2.
"If we listen to what everyone else said, we would be 5-11 again," quarterback Tom Brady said of his Patriots being 10-point underdogs today. "We haven't listened to people all year, and there is no reason to start now."
The Steelers who date back to the mid-1990s are also well aware of their team's recent track record in AFC title games at home. Pittsburgh was so confident of beating San Diego in 1994 that some of the players recorded a Super Bowl video. The Chargers won 17-13.
"We didn't show up, and we got smacked in the face," recalled safety Myron Bell.
It took cornerback Randy Fuller slapping the ball from Colts receiver Aaron Bailey's hands in the end zone to preserve a 20-16 victory over Indianapolis in the 1995 game at Three Rivers Stadium. And in 1997, first-year starting quarterback Kordell Stewart was picked off three times as the Steelers lost at home to Denver 24-21.
"That's always stuck in my head," said Stewart, who's going to his first Pro Bowl next month. "I've always wanted the opportunity to clean that up a little bit."
Stewart has that opportunity today, but consider that in his playoff games against New England in 1996 (a 28-3 road loss) and 1997 (a 7-6 home victory), he was just 14 of 41 for 134 yards. Those Patriots defenses were run by Belichick, who became head coach in 2000.
"Kordell has matured quite a bit, and he looks a lot more comfortable in the passing game," Belichick said. "His ability to keep you off balance because of the scrambling creates a lot of open spaces in the passing game because you have to account for Kordell running the ball. This is an offense that we have some familiarity with, but stopping it is a different story. They do a great job in the running game, the receivers make big plays and the quarterback is athletic, so they have a lot of prongs to stick in you."
Burly Jerome Bettis, back from six weeks on the shelf with hip and groin ailments, leads the NFL's top running attack while Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress are the first 1,000-yard receiving tandem in Pittsburgh history, but the versatile Stewart is the key.
"Our quarterback is a lot more experienced [compared to 1997]," Cowher said. "He's a very confident guy and is the leader of our offense."
The same is true of Brady, who had thrown just three NFL passes until an injury to Drew Bledsoe thrust him into the lineup in September. Brady is 12-3 as a starter and was sixth in the NFL passer ratings to Stewart's 12th. Last week, Brady was 32 of 52 for 312 yards while Stewart was a pedestrian 12-for-22 for 154 yards.
"Tom has been confident ever since he got here," Patriots receiver Troy Brown said of the sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft. "And he has just been getting better and better as far as making good decisions. When we were losing last week, he never panicked."
Brown, who caught a team-record 101 passes and led the NFL with a 14.2-yard punt return average, is the most dangerous Patriot. But Buffalo castoff Antowain Smith ran for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns and wideout David Patten and tight end Jerome Wiggins combined for 22 catches and 175 yards against the Raiders. New England's bend-but-don't break defense (24th in yards allowed, sixth in points) has held its past 10 foes to an average of just 13.5 points.
And if the game comes down to a field goal, the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri has kicked 11 career game-winners (six in overtime, three this year including last week's) while the Steelers' Kris Brown missed a league-high 14 attempts this year, 10 at Heinz Field.

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