PHOTO: New England Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson tries to catch up to Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El after a 34-yard gain during the third quarter of the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
The game plans differed greatly, but the tone was the same. Play physical football for 60 minutes and see if that's good enough. It worked against the finesse Colts, but physical football is the Steelers' game too. Once again, the Patriots proved they could match up with any team and win any style of football game, which is why they have 31 of their last 33 games and will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Pittsburgh had physically dominated New England in the first meeting back on Oct. 31 and the Patriots needed to send an early message that Round 2 of this prizefight would be vastly different than the first. They did just that halfway through the first quarter when Rosevelt Colvin stopped Jerome Bettis cold on a fourth-and-one-play and then ripped the ball free to guarantee the turnover.
"That was big," Colvin said. "Anytime you can create a turnover, you give your team momentum and an opportunity to score."
More than the opportunity to score, which New England did on a 60-yard bomb one play later, the message was sent that the bully was going to meet his match.
"I think the most important thing was that we set the tone early," linebacker Ted Johnson said. "They're a tough, physical football team. If you don't stand up to them, you're going to get pushed around and bullied around. That fourth down play was huge for our own psyche and our own state of mind. I felt like we sent a message when we stopped that play."
They then reiterated it early in the fourth quarter while holding a suddenly shaky 31-17 lead when Pittsburgh faced a first-and-goal at the Patriots 4-yard line. Bettis picked up a yard on first down before a second down fade to Plaxico Burress that probably should have been caught fell incomplete. On third down, it was Johnson who met Bettis in the hole and stuffed him for a 1-yard gain. That prompted Bill Cowher to send on his field goal unit, much to the dismay of the record crowd on hand at Heinz Field.
"That's what I'll remember about this game," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said about the goal line stand. "The Bus and Ted Johnson meeting in the hole. What a resounding hit. And maybe that got in their heads a bit."
"I thought our defensive line played stellar," Johnson added. "It was just unbelievable. Those guys up front just made play after play after play. That was huge because Pittsburgh set a physical tone and we were able to meet force with force. We won some situational battles in the game and that was huge."
It's also what the Patriots do, which is why they are headed to the Super Bowl for the second straight season and for the third time in four years.
- RB Corey Dillon stopped answering the Cincinnati Bengals questions a few
weeks back. He figured he was done with those after the Pats knocked off Cincy
in early December and officially put his demons behind him. But all of those
questions will resurface when more than 3,000 media members flock to Jacksonville
for Super Bowl XXXIX.
"We're in the Super Bowl," he said. "That's what they can tell Cincinnati. This is what it's all about. This is what I came here for. I'm going to bask in it a little bit but we still have one to go."
Dillon had never played in a postseason game during his seven seasons in Cincinnati but after cruising to 144 rushing yards in his playoff debut against the Colts, he had to fight for every single one of his 73 yards against the Steelers top ranked run defense. But his perseverance paid off when he rumbled 25 yards for the touchdown that gave the Pats a 31-10 lead in the second half.
"I'm more happy for Corey than I am for myself," safety Rodney Harrison said. "He worked so hard and made sacrifices and now he gets to go to the Super Bowl."
Harrison tasted that feeling last year, his first in New England.
- Much was made of Dillon's absence in the first meeting between the two
teams back on Halloween. But wideout Deion Branch also missed that game and
it was Branch who made the big plays to sting the Steelers in the rematch.
Branch caught four passes for a team high 116 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown and also ran twice for 37 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown.
"We had a bitter taste in our mouth," Branch said. "Neither Corey nor myself was there and I think our coaches did a great job of game planning for this game. We went out and executed plays."
Two of Branch's catches totaled 105 of his 116 receiving yards and he took a nasty hit from Troy Polamalu after a 45-yard catch on a skinny post.
"Deion made some huge plays," quarterback Tom Brady said. "He's a big-time playmaker and he's excited when you get the ball in his hands. He had a great game."
- LB Ted Johnson is one of five Patriots on the active roster who will go
to his fourth Super Bowl as a Patriot, joining Willie McGinest, Troy Brown,
Adam Vinatieri and Tedy Bruschi. "It's special," he said. "We
have some real special guys that are able to play together. I'm fortunate
that I get to play with these guys. It's amazing. Ten years, four Super Bowls."
Ty Law would be in that group as well, but is on injured reserve.
- S Rodney Harrison's interception and 87-yard touchdown return created a
huge point swing in New England's favor. Pittsburgh was poised to come away
with at least three points, but instead watched New England score seven in
what amounted to a 10-14-point swing. It was Harrison's fourth postseason
interception since joining the Patriots last season. "He was looking
at the tight end and I tried to anticipate a little bit and wait for him to
take the read. We knew we'd have some opportunities to make plays on the ball
because we saw on film that he sometimes lobs them up," Harrison said.
- CB Asante Samuel had a strong game against Pittsburgh with a team-high four
pass break-ups, but he could have intercepted three of those passes. Samuel
and Randall Gay held their own against Pittsburgh receivers Plaxico Burress
and Hines Ward.
- S Eugene Wilson led the Patriots with four interceptions this season and
added two more against the Steelers. His first came on Ben Roethlisberger's
first pass attempt and the second came in the fourth quarter in what amounted
to a game-clinching turnover. "That first one was a big play," he
said. "Asante (Samuel) bobbled the ball and I played it. It came right
to me and the offense went down and got us on the board. All season, we've
done a good job scoring first and it gave us a big advantage."
- WR David Givens was involved in a pair of plays that went to review in the game. The first came on an 18-yard completion in which he fumbled. Replays showed that his knee was down and the call on the field was overturned. A second Givens play also was overturned, this one didn't go in the Patriots favor. Givens laid out for a 44-yard reception, and while his hands were under the ball, the replay showed the ball did move when it touched the ground, which, by rule, made it incomplete. Givens finished with five catches for 59 yards.
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