PITTSBURGH (AP)—The New England Patriots turned Big Ben into Gentle Ben, and transformed the NFL’s best-record team into another overwhelmed opponent that couldn’t match the big plays they made, the intensity they brought or the leadership they possess.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and their 15-game winning streak weren’t nearly good enough to beat the Patriots with the AFC championship on the line, not even in the stadium where New England was overwhelmed 2 1/2 months before.
The Patriots’ 41-27 rout Sunday night sends them to their third Super Bowl in four seasons—this time, against the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville—and was just another in an ever-growing series of playoff performances that could soon stamp them as one of the best teams ever.
Tom Brady was too precise, too determined, and too experienced for Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to match. Roethlisberger tried getting away with the same mistakes he made in a great-escape overtime win over the New York Jets the week before but didn’t come close.
Not against this team, this quarterback, this coach, not even during this improbable Steelers season that saw them end the Patriots’ record 21-game streak 34-20 on Oct. 31. That was a bad-as-it-sounds performance that has driven New England ever since.
It certainly motivated coach Bill Belichick, who blistered his team after what he felt was a poor practice last Wednesday.
“He let us know it,” Brady said. “You would have thought we were 0-and-16 the way he spoke to us. It gets everyone in the right frame of mind. He’s got great perspective and is a tremendous coach.”
Belichick’s 9-1 playoff record ties Vince Lombardi as the best in NFL playoff history and validates his quarterback’s praise. Brady’s 8-0 postseason record is even better, and he showed why he might soon be this generation’s Bradshaw or Montana.
While Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, Brady tossed two scoring passes and no interceptions during a nearly flawless night.
One week it’s Peyton Manning, the next it’s Big Ben. No matter the opposing quarterback, or the challenge, Brady always seems to have an answer.
“He is a great leader. He is everything that defines what a leader is,” offensive lineman Matt Light said of Brady. “He motivates this team and he motivates everybody.”
The Steelers came out as cold as the 11-degree weather by turning the ball over on a Roethlisberger-thrown interception and Jerome Bettis’ fumble on their first two possessions. Predictably, the Patriots surged to a 10-0 lead on Brady’s 60-yard scoring pass to Deion Branch and Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal, which tied as the longest at Heinz Field.
Branch later set up Brady’s 9-yard TD pass to David Givens with a 45-yard catch, and he also had a 23-yard TD run. Roethlisberger also was intercepted for a touchdown for a second consecutive game, by Rodney Harrison for 87 yards to make it 24-3 late in the first half.
Sound familiar? During the Halloween game, the Steelers forced several turnovers, surged into a 24-3 lead and kept the Patriots from running the ball by building an overwhelming lead.
Hey, if something works, even Belichick will borrow from it.
“We demand a lot from our players,” Belichick said. “I’m happy they have this kind of achievement to show for it.”
All the Steelers have to show for the greatest regular season (15-1) in the franchise’s 73-season history is their fourth loss in five AFC title games under coach Bill Cowher since the 1994 season. It also was the second AFC championship game loss to New England at home in four seasons.
This probably hurt the worst of all because their season had been so magical, from Roethlisberger’s unexpected emergence to Bettis’ remarkable comeback season to their consecutive midseason victories over the previously unbeaten Patriots and Eagles.
Now, those teams will play for the Super Bowl trophy that has eluded the Steelers since they won the last of their four NFL titles in six seasons from 1974-79.
“I really felt like it was our time to win,” linebacker Joey Porter said. “That’s the first time I can say we were outplayed by a team. We had everything we needed. It was kind of the reverse of what we did to them the first time.”
The Steelers had a chance to cut it to 31-24 early in the fourth quarter after driving to a first down at the 5, only to be turned aside on three consecutive plays. Then, Cowher effectively halted their momentum by going for Jeff Reed’s 20-yard field goal rather than the touchdown, and Pittsburgh was never in it again.
“I don’t think that decided the game by any stretch of the imagination,” said Bettis, who ran for 64 yards while being held below 100 yards for the first time in eight starts. “We just couldn’t do anything after that.”
Because they couldn’t, the Steelers cost themselves any chance at an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl against the Eagles. Instead, the Patriots are going back again.
“Philadelphia doesn’t care what we accomplished over the past three years,” Vinatieri said. “We’re going to enjoy this for a day, then get back to work.”
After all, Belichick wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He said he had the most confidence in this team. I think that was huge for us to hear from our leader, from our coach,” Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say that. … He just has it, whatever it is. He just finds a way.”
So does his team.