Behind the strong play of rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh will try to end New England’s league-record 21-game win streak in a matchup of division leaders at Heinz Field.
The Patriots pulled out another close victory Sunday to remain one of two unbeaten teams in the NFL while setting a league record with their 18th straight regular-season win. Their 13-7 victory over the previously undefeated New York Jets was New England’s 21st straight win, including playoffs, since a 20-17 loss at Washington on Sept. 28, 2003.
With the victory, the Patriots improved to 6-0 for the first time in franchise history and assumed sole possession of first place in the AFC.
“It’s a sign we’ve done a great job to this point, but we have two-thirds of the season to play,” receiver David Patten said.
After handing the Jets their first loss of the season, the Patriots face another big challenge Sunday on the road against the surprising Steelers, the AFC North leaders who have won four straight and are coming off a bye.
Expectations weren’t very high in Pittsburgh this season following a 6-10 finish in 2003, but the play of Roethlisberger has the team off to its best start since it opened 5-1 in 2001.
Tommy Maddox began this season as the Steelers’ starting quarterback, but was forced out with an elbow injury during a 30-13 loss at Baltimore on Sept. 19. Roethlisberger, the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, finished that game and has led Pittsburgh to four wins in a row since taking over as the starter.
That ties him with Phil Simms (1979) for the second-longest win streak by a rookie quarterback to begin a career since 1970. Mike Kruczek started his career with six consecutive wins for Pittsburgh in 1976.
While the Steelers would love to end New England’s streak, coach Bill Cowher is more concerned with how his team performs than what the Patriots have achieved.
“We can’t get too caught up and enamored with what they’ve done,” he said. “If we play our game, minimize the mistakes and try to seize some opportunities, hopefully it will fall the right way and we’ll have an opportunity to win. We’re going to have to be on top of our game to win this.”
This will be by far Roethlisberger’s most difficult test because the first four teams he’s faced—Miami, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Dallas—have a combined record of 10-23.
Roethlisberger may not be flashy, but he is fourth in the NFL with a 100.1 passer rating, and his 69 percent (78-for-113) completion rate isn’t far off the NFL’s all-time record of 70.55 by Cincinnati’s Ken Anderson in 1982.
Cowher knows Patriots coach Bill Belichick will give Roethlisberger several different defensive looks in an effort to confuse the young quarterback.
“I’m sure there will be something (different) he will see,” Cowher said. “They’ll give us some things we’ll have to adjust to. But we can’t get too caught up in what they do. We have to establish our plan, play smart, control the clock and make some third downs.”
A victory Sunday would not only move the Steelers into a tie with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC, it would give them the tiebreaker over New England for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
“I think everybody would be lying if they said it was just another game. It’s not,” Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis said. “They’re the defending champs, first and foremost. In order to get where you want to get, you have to go through those guys.”
The Steelers’ eagerness for Sunday’s game was apparent earlier in the week, as Pittsburgh receivers Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward complained about what they see as a double standard applied to New England’s physical defensive backs.
“They’re arm-barring guys out of bounds, Ty Law’s pushing guys 10-15 yards downfield, stopping in front of guys and bumping them when they’re 20 yards downfield,” Burress said. “So I think (the NFL’s renewed crackdown on not allowing defensive backs to manhandle receivers downfield) applies to everybody but them.”
Ward says he plans to drop a few hints with the officiating crew to watch out for the Patriots’ mayhem before the game.
While much of the focus will be on Roethlisberger and New England’s Tom Brady, the new running backs for each team will likely play a major role in the outcome.
With 115 yards against the Jets, Corey Dillon already has 637 this season, just five fewer than New England’s leading rusher—Antowain Smith—had all of last season. Dillon, however, has been held under 60 yards in each of his past four games against the Steelers while with Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh’s Duce Staley had gone over the 100-yard mark in three straight games before rushing for 93 in Pittsburgh’s 24-20 victory at Dallas on Oct. 17.