- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005


The evidence keeps piling up for the New England Patriots. Even in a supposedly watered-down era, it’s hard to deny them their due, especially after watching them chainsaw the Steelers, 41-27, in yesterday’s AFC Championship game.

It wasn’t just that they went into a hostile stadium, Heinz Field, and manhandled a club that had won 15 in a row. It was that they did it a week after shutting down Peyton Manning and the Colts like they were a mere expansion team. (And three weeks before that, let’s not forget, they traveled to the Meadowlands and took apart the Jets, never giving them the slightest glimmer of hope.)

Much has been written of the strength of the AFC this season, particularly the upper echelon. Well, even in such fast company, the Patriots were head and shoulder pads above everyone else. I mean, check out the scores — 23-7 (Jets), 23-3 (Colts), 24-3 at the half (Steelers). Domination like that is rare in any decade, folks. Trust me, I’ve studied this stuff.

If Bill Belichick and lieutenants Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel can come up with one more ingenious game plan for the Eagles — and their players can execute it with their usual precision — the Patriots will take their place alongside the Lombardi Packers, the Perfect Dolphins, the Steel Curtain Steelers, the Montana 49ers and the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys as one of the greatest teams of the modern age. (And even if they lose the Super Bowl, I’m not sure they don’t belong in that company.)

How does Belichick do it, you ask? How has this colorless introvert managed to compile a postseason record (9-1) identical to Vince Lombardi’s? Tom Brady, who’s 8-0 himself in the playoffs, offers a clue:

“He never lets us get away with anything. We didn’t have a very good practice Wednesday, and he let us know it. You would have thought we were 0-16. But he was right.”

And Belichick’s players — obviously — responded.

We’ve known for a while now that the Patriots have a fabulous defense. That’s what won them their first title in 2001 — that and Adam Vinatieri’s right leg — and the unit has only gotten better since, despite some losses (Pro Bowlers Ty Law and Richard Seymour) that would have crippled other clubs. But the Pats’ offense is catching up quickly, as it showed when it hung 32 points on the Panthers in the Super Bowl last year and again last night when it scored 34 against the No. 1 defense in the league (the other seven points coming on an interception return).

Brady has blossomed, his young corps of receivers run most secondaries ragged and the acquisition of Corey Dillon has given the Patriots a running game they’ve never had. Quite simply, the New England “O” is a beast, too.

A defense as sound as the Steelers’ hardly ever breaks, but Brady victimized it for completions of 60 and 45 yards to Deion Branch, producing one touchdown and setting up another. Later, Dillon popped a 25-yard scoring run. Ordinary offenses don’t do that to Pittsburgh; heck, nobody has done that to Pittsburgh this season.

But the Patriots did because, among other things, Brady has turned into the Joe Montana/Terry Bradshaw/Bart Starr of his time. Doesn’t this guy’s collar ever get tight? Apparently not. The bigger the game, the better he plays; the bigger the play, the better he seems to focus — and find someone open downfield.

And here’s the scary part: He’s still just 27.

“I think they were basically trying to stop the run,” Dillon said of the Steelers, who limited him to a season-low 73 yards, “and we caught ‘em with a couple of play-actions [for big gains].”

The Pats also caught ‘em with a couple of end-arounds to Branch, the second of which went for 23 yards and a touchdown to ice the game. Yesterday was kind of a coming out party for the Other Deion (as he may soon be called). “He probably had the best game of his career,” Brady said.

The Steelers, admirably, made things interesting for a spell in the second half. They got as close as 31-20 early in the fourth quarter and would have gotten closer if they’d been able to punch it in from inside the 5-yard line. Would the outcome have been different if Bill Cowher had taken the wraps off Ben Roethlisberger sooner? Probably not. But Cowher’s playcalling was awfully conservative until his club fell behind by three touchdowns. Pittsburgh ran the ball — for modest gains, mostly — on nine of their first 11 first downs. The other two times, Roethlisberger whipped completions to Hines Ward of 19 and 28 yards.

First down is an awfully good down to throw, as we all know. But the Steelers’ game plan seemed to be: Let’s not put too much on the rookie. Let’s see if we can win by pounding away with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley and playing stifling defense. But you’re not going to beat a team like the Patriots without being at least a little bold. The Pats certainly took that approach, going deep against Pittsburgh repeatedly; but Cowher, perhaps because he learned at Marty Schottenheimer’s feet, just doesn’t seem able to Let Go in these situations, which explains why he’s now 1-4 in AFC title games.

So much for turning the Super Bowl into the Keystone State Classic. The Eagles held up their end, fending off the Falcons, but the Steelers ran into a certified dynasty at Heinz Field. There’ll be other years for Ben Roethlisberger and his mates, no question; the kid’s got an incredibly bright future. But the Patriots aren’t going anywhere. You get the feeling these two clubs will be seeing a lot of each other in the seasons ahead. Lucky us.

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