- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Pittsburgh Steelers vaulted from upstarts to heavyweight contenders on Halloween, clobbering the New England Patriots 34-20 and serving notice that the road to the AFC title would wind through western Pennsylvania.

Nearly three months later, the day of reckoning has arrived. New England, the defending Super Bowl champion, is back at snow-blanketed Heinz Field for the much anticipated rematch between these two powerhouses. The winner of tonight’s AFC Championship game advances to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb.6.

The Oct. 31 meeting wasn’t even much of a game as Pittsburgh jumped out to a 24-3 lead. By game’s end, the Steelers had rushed for 221 yards and the Patriots just five, while Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had completed 75 percent of his throws with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Does that victory mean anything today? Beyond establishing the locale of this game, probably not. Pittsburgh (16-1) has won 15 straight, but New England (15-2) is favored after winning two of the past three Super Bowls and seven straight playoff games.

“It’s going to be a different game,” Patriots safety Rodney Harrison promised. “They’re not going to blow us out like they did the first game. But they’re a tough team, and we have to play our best football.”

Three years ago, the teams met under identical circumstances: at Heinz, with the AFC title in the balance. New England used a pair of special teams touchdowns — a 55-yard punt return and a blocked field goal-turned-touchdown — to race ahead and set up the victory. A week later, the Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams to win Super Bowl XXXVI.

That was the most recent time Pittsburgh came up short despite homefield advantage at this stage. Today marks the Steelers’ fifth AFC title game at home (along with those at the end of the 1994, ‘95, ‘97 and 2001 seasons) under coach Bill Cowher, but only following the 1995 season did they advance to the Super Bowl.

“I think every game has been a pretty good football game,” Cowher said. “We just have not made the plays that you have to make in big games. I think that is the thing that happens. When you go into the playoffs, you are playing quality teams, and you can’t turn the football over and squander scoring opportunities.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick offered a similarly fundamentals-centric forecast for tonight. Belichick played down all the strategic analysis that has gone on, saying he doesn’t see this contest shaping up as “a big scheme game.”

“Turnovers are going to be important,” Belichick said. “Red area is going to be important. Scoring opportunities are going to be important. … Whatever team is able to capitalize on those scoring opportunities and play enough defense to keep the other team with less points, that is the team that is going to win.”

But Belichick’s sober breakdown doesn’t diminish the many compelling matchups. Pittsburgh’s burly offense, which includes the NFL’s No.2 running game, is set to face the always creative defense of Belichick, while Patriots golden boy Tom Brady, who owns the best winning percentage of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era, faces the Steelers’ top-ranked defense.

Tonight’s No.1 topic might concern what was missing from the Oct.31 game, when Patriots running back Corey Dillon meets Pittsburgh’s defense. Dillon rushed for a team-record 1,635 yards this season and brings valuable balance to a capable passing attack.

“He’s going to be a big difference-maker,” Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. “He’s one of the best running backs in the league, and he adds another dimension to that offense. They already are good. With him back there in the backfield, it is going to be a lot tougher this time.”

Defensively, the Patriots also seem to have an edge compared to the Oct.31 meeting. Belichick is regarded as one of the NFL’s finest defensive minds, and it is widely assumed he’ll befuddle Roethlisberger, who looked shaky in last week’s overtime win against the New York Jets.

“You can’t afford to feel like a rookie because if I go out there and play like a rookie like I did [last weekend], you lose the game,” Roethlisberger said. “Luckily, I have the defense that we have, and we have 10 other guys on offense that carried this team.”

Those issues and New England’s playoff pedigree were enough to sway the oddsmakers, who made the visitors the favorite. But the Steelers are hoping to finish what their Halloween victory showed was possible.

“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Farrior said. “That’s what’s made us successful. We are just going to keep going out and playing hard and see what happens.”

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