PHOTO: New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, left, takes down Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after he made a first down during the second quarter of the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh Sunday,
Jan. 23, 2005. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
PATS IN JAX
Pitt Rookie Rattled, Pats Hunt Down Lamar Trophy
By Chris Timoney
For the third time in four years the New England Patriots are headed to the Super Bowl. After another week of hype about the other team the defending Super Bowl champions came out and played just like that like champions. A dominant 41-27 victory over Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers has earned the Patriots another AFC title and punched them a ticket to Jacksonville for Super Bowl XXXIX.
Much like after last week's Divisional win against the Colts in Foxboro, Bill Belichick was beaming with pride yesterday. "I am extremely proud of our football team. Give them all the credit in the world", said Belichick. The coach continued praising the team deep into his post-game comments, "I've never been around a harder working group of guys I'm very fortunate to be coaching this team."
Belichick's responses were just and the result of a great performance by the Patriots against a great team in a hostile environment.
After winning the coin flip and electing to receive, Steelers coach Bill Cowher's offense started their hopeful drive to the Super Bowl from their own 25 with the Heinz Field crowd already in a frenzy. In staying with the power running game that got them here, the Steelers opened with a 4 yard Jerome Bettis run to the left. Two plays after Bettis' opening run things began to go downhill for the Steelers quick. On third and 3 Roethlisberger, operating out of the shotgun, looked to pass down field to Antwaan Randle El. The pass was thrown a bit off target and was tipped and nearly picked off by Asante Samuel, the ball then fell right into the hands of Eugene Wilson for the interception and the Patriots took over from the Steelers 48 yard line.
On first down Deion Branch took the reverse handoff from Brady and ran for 14 yards down to the 34. A few runs by Corey Dillon moved the ball down to the 30 and eventually led to a 4th and 6 situation. Without hesitation Belichick trotted out Mr. Automatic, kicker Adam Vinatieri. Under ice cold, windy weather conditions and in front of a volatile crowd Vinatieri confidently took his position behind holder Josh Miller and accurately connected on the 48 yard attempt to give New England an early 3-0 lead.
With most of the first quarter left to play, Pittsburgh took possession after the ensuing kick-off at their own 31. Even with Romeo Crennel's defense showing 8 men up front in the box the Steeler's opened up with the run. Bettis' first down run went good for 5 yards, but the veteran Steeler was stuffed for no gain by defensive lineman Ty Warren. Roethlisberger connected to Plaxico Burress for 16 yards on 3rd and 5, moving the ball just over midfield for the first down. Getting back to the run Bettis and Vernon Haynes combined for 9 yards setting up a 4th and 1 on the New England 39. Having Bettis and Staley, Cowher decided to make an early statement by going for it on 4th down. Bettis took the hand-off and was stood up at the line of scrimmage by linebacker Roosevelt Colvin. After the hit, with Bettis trying to pry himself free, Colvin had the presence of mind to strip the ball for the fumble. Linebacker Mike Vrabel recovered the loose ball on the 40 and the Patriots were back in business.
On the very next play, on first down from his own 40, Tom Brady dropped back in the pocket and launched a pass 55 yards down field to Deion Branch. Branch, who had beaten his defender to the inside, caught the ball at the 5 yard line and took it into the endzone for the touchdown. Just like that the Patriots were up 10-0 and the Steelers and Heinz Field crowd was stunned. The 60 yard Brady to Branch play was the longest pass play of the season for New England.
Down ten points early to the defending champions the Steelers were a bit rattled and struggled in their next possession. New England didn't fair all that well either on their next possession as Josh Miller ended up punting from his own 21 into the wind. The punt only traveled 27 yards and gave Pittsburgh possession on the Patriots 48.
Working with the short field the Steelers managed to get some plays off and move the ball. On first down Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward for 19 yards. Running back Duce Staley would move the ball a few more yards on runs up the middle but the Steelers would fail to convert a first down. On 4th and 6 from the 25 kicker Jeff Reed came out and made the 43 yard field goal putting Pittsburgh on the scoreboard at 10-3 with the first quarter running down.
After an exchange of punts New England took over possession at the 10 minute mark of the 2nd quarter. Three plays into the drive on 1st down from his own 41 Brady again dropped back in the pocket and connected with Deion Branch (4 catches for 116 yards, 1TD) down the middle of the field for a 45 yard completion down to the Steelers 14 yard line. Two plays later from the 9, Brady threw a quick pass to the right for David Givens. Givens took full advantage of the defender who slipped on the coverage and took the ball into the endzone untouched. The Patriots now lead 17-3 and the Steelers were seeing how to play championship football.
The Steelers didn't run and hide, they responded with a nice drive that started at their own 23 and moved down to the New England 19. The drive featured running back Duce Staley and was highlighted by a 28 yard pass play to Hines Ward (5 catches for 109 yards). On second and six from the 19 Roethlisberger misfired on a pass intended for Jerame Tuman. Safety Rodney Harrison stepped in to intercept the pass and proceeded to run 87 yards down the other end of the field(aided by a Vrabel block on Roethlisberger) for the touchdown putting New England up big 24-3. New England, the road favorite, went into halftime up three touchdowns.
Knowing they had a lot of work to do the Steelers were quick and precise with their first possession of the half. Starting with the ball on their own 44, Roethlisberger marched the team downfield completing twice to Antwaan Randle El for 36 yards. On first and goal from the 5 Bettis rumbled into the endzone and the Steelers had their first touchdown of the day and now trailed 24-10. The score re-ignited the Heinz Field crowd.
Tom Brady (14 of 21 for 207 yards, 2TDs) was sacked on 2nd down and set up a 3rd and 17 situation. Brady threw incomplete to Kevin Faulk on the 3rd and long play, but New England was bailed out by a defensive holding penalty which resulted in an automatic first down. Brady completed to Givens for 18 yards on the next play, but Givens fumbled. After reviewing the play Givens was ruled down, so not only did the Patriots keep possession but also received an additional 15 yards on an unnecessary roughness call that took place after the play. On first down from the 25 Corey Dillon (24 runs for 73 yards), behind the blocking of fullback Patrick Pass, bounced outside and headed unscathed to the endzone. New England now lead 31-10 and were in command.
In desperate need of a touchdown the Steelers worked from their own 40 with 7:20 left in the third quarter. Pittsburgh's efforts were rewarded when on 4th and 5 from the New England 30 Roethlisberger found Hines Ward for the touchdown pass, closing the gap to 31-17. After a quick and much needed three-and-out by the Patriots, the Steelers again were blessed with a short field as they began a drive at their own 45. After Bettis rumbled for 25 yards on first down, Roethlisberger (14 of 24 for 226 yards) found Hines Ward down the sideline on a pressured pass in a rollout. Ward danced down the sideline to the New England 4 yard line. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh they were unable to move past the two, and much to the dismay of the Heinz Field crowd Cowher opted for the short field goal. Reed's conversion on the 20 yard attempt drew the Steelers to within 11 at 31-20 with over 13 minutes remaining in the game.
In classic Patriots fashion and with a confident calmness New England marched the ball 49 yards in 5:26 on the very next possession and came away with another Adam Vinatieri field goal. The 31 yarder pushed the Pats lead to 34-20, leaving the Steelers down two touchdowns with only eight minutes remaining.
The rookie Roethlisberger again did his team in by throwing his third interception of the day on 2nd down. The pass intended for Hines Ward was picked off by Eugene Wilson at the New England 45. The pick was Wilson's second of the day.
Just to make sure the game was completely out of reach, the Patriots took the ball down to the Steeler 23 yard line via a combination of Dillon & Faulk runs and aided by a 16 yard pass to Givens (5 catches for 59 yards, 1TD). On 3rd an 9 from the 23 Deion Branch (2 runs for 37 yards) took the ball on a reverse and headed into the endzone, sealing the victory and locking up the Patriots 5th Lamar Hunt Trophy in ten years.
Up 41-20 with just over two minutes to go all that had to happen now was for time to tick off the clock. Pittsburgh managed one more touchdown at the 56 second mark. Roethlisberger completed to Plaxico Burress (3 catches for 37 yards) to complete a 61 yard scoring drive but it was too little too late.
Fifty-two second later the Patriots were crowned AFC Champions (AGAIN!) and move on to face the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Bill Belichick is now 9-1 in the post-season(8-0 with New England) and has tied Vince Lombardi for the best post-season record. With the temperature at +13 degrees at kickoff, it was the 2nd coldest game in Pittsburgh. The Patriots have won the last 12 games in which a Romeo Crennel defense has scored. Brady's 60 yard TD bomb to Branch was the longest in Patriots playoff history. Brady has the lowest INT % in NFL post-season history, he's only thrown 3 post-season interceptions. David Givens now has a touchdown in his last 4 post-season games, Givens now has the most post-season touchdowns of any Patriots wide-receiver (passing Stanley Morgan, 3). Adam Vinatieri passed George Blanda and Steve Christie in all-time post-season FGs. Vinatieri now only trails behind Gary Anderson (32). The Patriots are now the 6th team in NFL history to win 3 conference championships in 4 years.
Chris Timoney provides is a site contributor for the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: jakbrown. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by using the search feature on this site.
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