PITTSBURGH (AP)—The New England Patriots are no longer perfect, all because of a rookie quarterback who still is.
Ben Roethlisberger, who doesn’t know what it’s like to lose an NFL game, drove the Steelers to four scores following uncharacteristic New England turnovers and Pittsburgh ended the Patriots’ two long winning streaks with a remarkably easy 34-20 victory Sunday.
The Patriots (6-1) had won 21 straight counting the playoffs and a league-record 18 in a row in the regular season, but were all but out of this one after Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes to Plaxico Burress during a 21-point Steelers first quarter.
Maybe all this winning was too much to ask of Boston-area teams. With running back Corey Dillon (thigh) sitting out and Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law (foot) sidelined for all but a few plays, the Patriots’ record run ended only four days after the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
“It was never about the streak, that was never part of our preparation,” linebacker Mike Vrabel said. “It wasn’t this week against the Steelers, either — we just didn’t play well enough to win, that’s it.”
This was supposed to be the game that exposed Roethlisberger as a rookie— taking on New England’s defensive mastermind, coach Bill Belichick, and the Patriots’ unpredictable defenses. Instead, Roethlisberger ran his own winning streak to 18—his last 13 games at Miami of Ohio and his first five in the NFL.
Only former Steelers quarterback Mike Kruczek’s 6-0 start while subbing for the injured Terry Bradshaw in 1976 is longer than Roethlisberger’s since the 1970 NFL merger. But Kruczek never threw a TD pass in 10 games this season.
Roethlisberger already has nine scoring passes in what is fast becoming the best season by an NFL rookie QB since Dan Marino threw 20 touchdown passes and only six interceptions in 11 games for the 1983 Dolphins.
“It’s only been five games,” Roethlisberger said. “We keep saying it over and over again, let’s not get too excited.”
His teammates certainly are excited, with the Steelers (6-1) off to their best start since their 1978 team was 7-0. Roethlisberger was 18-of-24 for 196 yards and no interceptions Sunday and is 39-of-49 in his last two games.
“You can’t describe his effort,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “He’s 5-0, and he’s earning a lot of respect on this team. The guys on this team are fighting hard for him.”
Rather than Roethlisberger, it was the Patriots’ Tom Brady who looked like the rookie, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble in New England’s first loss since a 20-17 defeat to Washington on Sept. 28, 2003.
“It’s not weird at all (to lose), we knew it was a possibility every week,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “That’s why we played so hard and prepared so hard every week. But a couple of things happened, a couple of mistakes … and they were rolling.”
Everything looked status quo early for the Patriots, who overcame Dillon’s absence following two consecutive 100-yard games to drive for Adam Vinatieri’s 43-yard field goal, the 15th straight game they’ve scored first.
After that, it fell apart.
Roethlisberger hit Ward for 21 yards ahead of a perfectly thrown 47-yard scoring pass to a stretched-out Burress, who quickly shed backup Randall Gay two plays after he came in for the injured Law.
“He (Gay) was a lame duck out there, so we just went right at him,” Burress said.
It never got any better for the Patriots, playing here for the first time since upsetting Pittsburgh 24-17 in the AFC championship game in January 2002.
On New England’s next play, Brady fumbled after a hard hit from Joey Porter, leading to Roethlisberger’s 4-yard pass to Burress and a 14-3 lead.
Just 16 seconds later, Brady, hit by Larry Foote and Kimo von Oelhoffen, threw the ball directly to Deshea Townsend for a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown, and it was 21-3 almost before New England fans had put down their signs from Saturday’s Red Sox victory parade.
“It was pretty obvious the Steelers were the better team,” Belichick said. “They outcoached us, outplayed us and we weren’t good in any phase of the game. We didn’t do much of anything right.”
Duce Staley supported Roethlisberger by running for 125 yards in his fourth 100-yard game of the season, two more than the Steelers (6-10) had all last season.
Next up for Pittsburgh—or, as they’re calling it now, Roethlis-burgh—is unbeaten Philadelphia, 7-0 for the first time.
“We’re trying to do something on this side of Pennsylvania, too,” Burress said.
Jerome Bettis, until now only a goal-line specialist this season, added 65 yards on 15 carries as Pittsburgh outgained New England 417-248. … Bettis had a 2-yard touchdown run after Kevin Faulk, Dillon’s replacement, fumbled on the first play of the second half. … The crowd of 64,737 was the largest since Heinz Field opened in 2001. … The Steelers have won five straight.