The Patriots lose games one way. Turnovers. Sure every team in the NFL could claim turnovers as its undoing in a given week, but not every team has won 32 of its last 36 games over two seasons. During that span, the Patriots' turnover ratio is plus-45 in wins and minus-13 in losses. There isn't a more discerning stat for New England as it prepares to travel to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game.
In each of the four losses suffered over the past two seasons, the Patriots have turned the ball over four times, including in Pittsburgh back on Oct. 31 when Tom Brady tossed two interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown, while also losing a fumble. Kevin Faulk also lost a fumble while the Patriots failed to force a single Steeler turnover.
So while it's easy to cite avoiding turnovers as the key to the game for New England, actually doing that will fall on the shoulders of the offensive line as much as it will Tom Brady, Corey Dillon or any other skill player with the ball in his hands. Pass protection will be critical against Dick LeBeau's difficult to decipher zone blitz schemes.
The Steelers sacked Brady a season-high four times in the first meeting, forcing a fumble on one. But it was the steady pressure that led to the interceptions, and the Steelers' physical nature that forced what should be construed as takeaways more than giveaways in the true sense of each word.
"One element of it is getting it blocked so you don't have a runaway rusher," Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained about handling the zone blitz. "Once you identify the blockers and pick it up, you have to actually block them. Sometimes we were in position and we just couldn't handle them. Some of it was also the coaching and the scheme."
"They are the most physical team we faced," center Dan Koppen said. "They kicked our butts. They're the best team in the league. They do some things that cause problems (with their rush). First you have to recognize the rushers and then you have to get a hat on a hat."
Koppen and the rest of the Pats' front five are basking in the glow of a 210-yard rushing performance last week, but its protection has been shaky for much of the season and much more so than the 26 sacks allowed would indicate. The Colts had steady pressure on Brady last week, and the offense's emphasis change from a short passing game to more of a downfield attack has put added pressure on the protection, which can best be described as inconsistent. The job they do this week could be most directly tied to the Patriots' Super Bowl hopes.
Brady is a quarterback who has not only proven to be a clutch, big-game performer, but also one who avoids big mistakes. It not only will be important for New England to protect the ball this week, but also to play conservatively in its own end to ensure the Steelers don't get the short field to work with that they did in building a 21-3 lead in the first quarter of the first meeting back on Halloween.
"We have to play a good hard-nosed game and can't make the mistakes we made the firs time," safety Rodney Harrison said. "They took it to us."
Over the last two seasons, the Patriots have lost the turnover battle in five of their 32 wins, but they have only gone seven games without turning it over at least once. So the odds say the Patriots will have at least one turnover this weekend, but it cannot come on their own side of the field if at all.
Scoring figures to be at a premium with these two physical, run-first ball clubs and the field position battle could ultimately determine the outcome of this game. That puts pressure on Brady to remain calm in what is as hostile an environment as there is in the NFL. He will have to be sharp this week against a tough, emotional, swarming defense.
The other keys to the game also are obvious from New England's standpoint. The Steelers will try to establish their physical dominance on the ground from the outset. They will look to set a tone and get Jerome Bettis high stepping early and often. If they are successful in establishing their dominant ground attack with power runners Bettis and Duce Staley running behind arguably the best offensive line in football, the game will be over by halftime even if the score doesn't dictate such a declaration.
These are two physical football teams and if one establishes its dominance in that area, it could be a long day for the other. Pittsburgh ran 49 times for 225 yards in the first meeting. The Patriots have to stop the run.
"You can't just let them run the football and dictate the tempo and control the clock," Harrison said. "They're big, physical and strong. We have to hit them, tackle well, get guys to the ball and take care of gap responsibilities."
"You need to be ready to put a neck roll on, stay in there and take guys on," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "You can't go into the game jumping around blockers and getting out of the way. You have to meet force with force and not try to come off blocks."
Finally, the Patriots must execute Belichick's most basic defensive premise, which is to prevent big plays. The Steelers hit New England for a 47-yard touchdown pass back on Oct. 31 and nothing gets under Belichick's skin more than those types of plays. His simple philosophy is to make a team take 10 plays to drive 70 yards rather than one. It's still 70 yards, but in 10 plays, his defensive unit has a chance to make a big play. It can't do that when it allows all 70 in one shot. That's the basic theory behind his bend-but-don't-break approach.
Even more basic than that this week will be this: the AFC Champion will be the team that is more physical on Sunday.
SERIES HISTORY: 21st meeting. Pittsburgh leads series 13-7, but New England won three of the last four. This is the fourth playoff meeting between the teams since the 1996 season. The Patriots trounced Pittsburgh, 28-3, in a Divisional Playoff game on the way to Super Bowl XXXI only to lose to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 7-6, the following season in the Divisional round. The 2001 Patriots captured the AFC Championship in Pittsburgh. The series dates back to 1972 and has been dominated by the Steelers. Four of New England's seven wins against Pittsburgh have come since 1997.
It started well for New England, but unraveled in a hurry. Back on Oct. 31, the Patriots defense opened the game with a three-and-out, and the offense drove 40 yards and kicked a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. The teams then traded punts before things went awry for New England.
With 4:52 left in the first quarter, cornerback Ty Law limped off the field with a broken foot. Two plays later, the Steelers attacked his replacement, Randall Gay, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with Plaxico Burress for a 47-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead.
That was all the momentum Pittsburgh needed as it overwhelmed a shocked Patriots team. On the Patriots' ensuing offensive play, Joey Porter sacked Tom Brady forcing a fumble that Pittsburgh recovered at the Patriots 27. Five plays later it was 14-3. Six plays later it was 21-3 when Brady's first down pass was intercepted by Deshea Townsend and returned 39 yards for a score.
Pittsburgh finished the first quarter with nine runs for 38 yards and a 21-3 lead. By the end of the day, the Steelers had run it another 40 times for almost 200 yards while sitting on the lead. In the second half alone, the Steelers ran 30 times for 144 yards against a Patriots defense helpless to stop it.
"They're a real good football team and we saw it first hand," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They totally dominated us. They're strong in every area. They're physical. Their two running backs and their offensive line are outstanding. Hopefully we can get the game on competitive terms and not be behind by three touchdowns the whole game.
- Since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 when facing a quarterback for the second
time in a season. But since the Steelers are a run heavy team with a dominant
ground game, Bill Belichick's and Romeo Crennel's mastery of opposing quarterbacks
in a rematch situation might be nullified.
If the Steelers get their vaunted ground game going against New England and stay out of too many obvious passing situations, it will be difficult for the Patriots to use their different looks and schemes to confuse Roethlisberger, who played a terrific game in the first meeting, completing 18-of-24 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. If he is forced to throw the ball often, that's when the Patriots defensive disguises can cause problems. But all the exotic looks and designs are useless when a team is lining up and running it down an opponent's throat.
- The Patriots will hope to turn the tables on Pittsburgh. It was the Steelers
who snapped New England's NFL record 21-game winning streak back on Oct. 31.
Now the Patriots hope to stop Pittsburgh's 15-game winning streak. If the
Steelers go on to win the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger, 23, would become the
youngest quarterback to win the title game, surpassing the current youngest,
Tom Brady, who was 24 when the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI.
- Neither Pittsburgh nor New England has been exceptional in kickoff coverage
or returns, but both have explosive return specialists in Bethel Johnson for
New England and Antwaan Randle-El for Pittsburgh. The Patriots ranked fifth
in the AFC in kickoff returns while the Steelers were sixth. Pittsburgh was
10th in the AFC in kickoff coverage while the Patriots were 11th.
- Bill Belichick is 8-1 in the postseason and would tie Vince Lombardi for
the best career playoff winning percentage with a win this week (minimum of
- This is the Patriots' fifth trip to the conference championship game in
team history and they have won all of the previous four to advance to Super
Bowls XX, XXXI, XXXVI and XXXVIII. They are 2-2 in the Super Bowl with wins
over Carolina and St. Louis and losses to Green Bay and Chicago.
- The Patriots' defensive effort against the Colts was nothing if not outstanding.
The Patriots' schemes gave Peyton Manning and the Colts passing attack some
trouble. This week's game will be more about power than scheme. "This
is not going to be a big scheme game," Belichick said. "It's going
to come down to execution. The team that plays the best fundamentally and
executes situationally will win."
- Patriots center Dan Koppen and Steelers reserve quarterback Brian St. Pierre
were teammates at Boston College and remain close friends. Koppen is from
Western Pennsylvania and landed in Massachusetts while St. Pierre is from
Massachusetts and ended up in Western Pennsylvania. The two were also drafted
on back-to-back picks with Pittsburgh taking St. Pierre 163rd in the 2003
draft and the Patriots taking Koppen 164th.
- Patriots Mike Vrabel, Josh Miller and Hank Poteat both started their careers
in Pittsburgh before signing with the Patriots as free agents. Steelers special
teams ace Sean Morey's career began with the Patriots.
- The Patriots are 5-7 in road playoff games, including 1-1 at Pittsburgh.
BY THE NUMBERS: 13 - The number of opening day starters expected to start this weekend in Pittsburgh.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He has the best instincts I've ever seen. He's always around the ball making plays." - safety Rodney Harrison speaking about linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This is Ted Johnson's week. His time to shine. A season in which he has enjoyed
a resurgence will face its stiffest test to date. Not only has Johnson played
in all 16 games for the first time since 1997, but he also started the final
15 and produced like the Johnson of old, the one that teetered on stardom before
the injury bug bit and bit and kept biting.
Last week, against the pass-first Colts, he gave up some of his playing time to Roman Phifer, who is quicker and better in pass coverage. This week he will be heavily relied upon to defend the Steelers' power rushing attack.
Johnson had a season-high 14 tackles in the first meeting with the Steelers, but should have had at least that many since Pittsburgh ran it 49 times. He will have to be even better this time around.
In 15 starts and 16 games this season, Johnson finished with 112 tackles, good for third on the team behind Rodney Harrison (138) and Tedy Bruschi (128). It was his highest tackle total since 1998.
- DL Richard Seymour did not practice Wednesday, did not appear in the locker
room when it was open to the media and isn't expected to play this weekend
in Pittsburgh. He is listed as questionable on the injury report and coach
Bill Belichick offered nothing in the way of a status update.
- RB Patrick Pass left the Colts game in the first quarter with a leg injury
before returning in the second half. He reported on Monday that he is "fine",
but he missed at least a portion of Wednesday's practice and is questionable
for the game.
- RB Corey Dillon did not play in the first meeting with the Steelers, a game
in which New England netted 5 rushing yards. Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards
in 15 games this season and another 144 in his first career playoff game.
But with the Patriots turning the ball over twice in the first quarter of
the first meeting and falling behind 21-3, it's unlikely that Dillon would
have made a difference against Pittsburgh. Asked if he thought Dillon would
be a difference maker in the rematch, Belichick said, "We'll find out
Sunday. I'm glad we have him, but we still have to block them."
- QB Tom Brady's 7-0 mark as a playoff starter ties former Cowboys quarterback
Troy Aikman for most playoff wins by a quarterback to begin his career. Brady
has seven postseason touchdown passes, which is tied with Tony Eason for the
most in franchise history.
- WR Troy Brown is expected to handle punt returns for New England again this week even though Kevin Faulk has handled those duties for most of the season. Faulk returned 20 punts during the regular season with a long return of 16 yards and a 6.7-yard average. Brown averaged only 6.9 yards on his 12 returns, but had a long of 23 yards in New York on Dec. 26 and then averaged 14 yards on his two returns last week, including one of 20 yards that he almost broke for a big play. Brown returned a punt for a touchdown against the Steelers in the 2001 AFC Championship Game.
GAME PLAN: Offensively, expect the Patriots to spread the Steelers out even with Corey Dillon available for duty this time around. Figuring the secretive Patriots plan is more guesswork than anything, but New England typically tries to spread out teams that like to blitz like Pittsburgh does because it helps Brady identify the blitzers and set up his protection and routes accordingly. That philosophy did not work in the first meeting, but with Dillon in and the Steelers having to respect the running game, the pass rush might be slowed down somewhat. But Brady will still have to unload the ball quickly and accurately out of the spread looks rather than hold the ball trying to go downfield or the ferocious Steelers rush will make him pay. The Patriots will also run the ball with Dillon out of the spread formations and might mix in some no-huddle offense as well. It will be risky for the Patriots to run an empty backfield look with scram protection, especially since left tackle Matt Light had trouble with Dwight Freeney last week and with Joey Porter in the first meeting, but don't be surprised to see the four-wide, one back look.
Defensively, the Patriots will try to play a two-deep safety coverage and stop the run with the front seven to prevent exposing cornerbacks Randall Gay and Asante Samuel. While that tandem did not get exposed last week against Indy, part of the reason for that was because the Patriots dropped their linebackers deeper than normal to prevent any big plays down the middle against the split safety looks. They cannot use that same approach this week against the dominant Pittsburgh ground attack. The linebackers have to stay at home and respect the run, which will make the defense more vulnerable to play action passes. If the Patriots play an eight-man front and challenge Roethlisberger, look for him to attack whichever matchup is one-on-one. New England is likely to match Asante Samuel up with the physical Hines Ward in those situations while using safety help over the top of deep threat Plaxico Burress. Roethlisberger will also go after nickel back Troy Brown when matched up on Antwaan Randle-El. The Patriots may try to stay in their base defense against the three-wide looks like they did last week against the Colts. In that case, a linebacker would try to chuck the slot receiver before passing him off to safety Eugene Wilson.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
- Patriots LT Matt Light vs. Steelers OLB Joey Porter. Light has struggled
of late and Porter had three of Pittsburgh's four sacks in the first meeting
coming off the edge. Light needs to play his best game of the season.
- Patriots C Dan Koppen vs. Steelers NT Chris Hoke. Running the football at
Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense starts with being able to block the nose tackle one-on-one
so that uncovered guards can get hats on the inside linebackers. If Hoke ties
up blockers and James Farrior and Larry Foote go unblocked, the Patriots will
not be able to run the football.
- Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis vs. Steelers defensive coordinator
Dick LeBeau. The Patriots must be able to recognize the LeBeau's exotic zone
blitz schemes and execute against it. The Patriots' offensive play calling
will be under a microscope this week. Weis has to scheme to get the ball out
of Tom Brady's hands quickly.
- Patriots NT Keith Traylor and ILBs Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson vs. C Jeff Hartings, Gs Alan Faneca and Keydrick Vincent and RBs Jerome Bettis and Duce
Staley. The middle of the Patriots defense must be up to the task of stopping
the Steelers power, between-the-tackles running game. If the Steeler interior
linemen control this matchup as they did in the earlier meeting, it will be
another long afternoon for the Pats.
- Patriots CBs Asante Samuel and Randall Gay vs. Steelers receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. With Pittsburgh running the ball to keep QB Ben Roethlisberger out of third-and-long situations, the coverage on the outside must be tight to avoid easy conversions that help Pittsburgh's rookie quarterback gain confidence. Pittsburgh's receivers are physical, but the Patriots smaller corners must be able to meet force with force just as the front seven will have to do in the running game.
INJURY IMPACT: If Pass is unable to play this weekend, Rabih Abdullah will handle any needed lead blocking duties while also filling Pass' role as a special teams cover man, although the latter duty could be spread out since Abdullah already covers kicks. Look for New England to use a linebacker in that role, perhaps Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel or Roman Phifer. Jarvis Green is expected to start for Richard Seymour, although the Patriots might use a front three of Ty Warren, Keith Traylor and Vince Wilfork to put a more stout lineup on the field while calling on Green to rotate in on the ends. If Seymour is inactive, either Marquise Hill or Ethan Kelley could see some snaps against the physical Steelers rushing attack.
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