Game means more to Pittsburgh

Pretenders or contenders? That's what Sunday's game means to Pittsburgh when the Steelers play New England at Heinz Field. Put up or shut up.

It has been a nice little story in Pittsburgh, rookie quarterback leading the Steelers on a four-game winning streak to put them where no one thought they would be after a 6-10 season - in first place in the AFC North with a 5-1 record. Sunday, all that changes. The Steelers have a chance to stamp themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders by beating unbeaten New England.

Pittsburgh's five victories were built against opponents with a combined 10-23 record. Over the next two weeks, they play the unbeaten Patriots and Eagles at home. If they upset New England, they will be tied with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC, pending Monday night's game between the one-loss Jets and Dolphins. For the more optimistic, a victory over the Patriots also would give the Steelers the first tiebreaker against New England in the playoffs.

The Steelers have prevailed even though they've lost four starters to injuries at quarterback, right guard and, most recently, nose tackle and cornerback. They began the season as 40-1 longshots to win the Super Bowl compared to New England's top-favorite 6-1 odds.

The Patriots have been a thorn in Pittsburgh's side, and Sunday is a chance for them to remove it and extract a small measure of revenge for New England's upset victory in Heinz Field in the 2001 AFC Championship Game. Since then, the Patriots have won two Super Bowls and the Steelers have slipped - until this season.

"A lot of what we have done to this point has been us not beating ourselves," coach Bill Cowher said. "Being physical, controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and having solid special teams will give you a chance to win a lot of football games. I would like to think that it is a very solid identity to have if we could continue that."

New England's Bill Belichick has beaten Cowher both times they've played, in that AFC title game and then in the opener in 2002. There's a perception that Belichick has outcoached Cowher both times, even though Cowher's teams were 7-2 against Belichick's Cleveland Browns teams. It's another battle-within-the-battle on Sunday.

There's also the matter of rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger going against a Belichick defense that has confounded veteran quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Chad Pennington. Roethlisberger is 4-0 and has looked very unlike a rookie quarterback. But Belichick's defense has ways to convert him.

"They will give us some things that we will have to adjust to," Cowher said. "We just have to play our game. We can't get too caught up in worrying about what they do. I think we have to establish our plan and go out there and play smart, control the clock, make some third downs, and if opportunities present itself to throw the ball down the field, we have to take our shots."

Of more concern are the shots they might have to weather against Tom Brady and Corey Dillon. The Steelers lost their Pro Bowl nose tackle, Casey Hampton, with a knee injury in their last game, and also lost their starting left cornerback, Chad Scott, to a knee injury for 4-6 weeks. Dillon had to love that news, because Hampton was a key to their stopping the run. And Brady can't help but like what he sees when the Steelers trot out a makeshift dime defense with six defensive backs, two of them substitutes with the losses of Scott and veteran safety Mike Logan.

For those reasons, the Steelers could throw some exotic defenses at the Patriots with coordinator Dick LeBeau having two weeks to work on something.

The Steelers' giddy ride after six games of 2004 may not last long either. But if they beat the Patriots, they move from fantasyland into something very real.

Series - 17th meeting. Steelers lead the series, 11-5 and Bill Cowher also has a 3-2 record against the Patriots, but he has not beaten Bill Belichick since he has coached the Patriots. Belichick is 2-0 against Cowher, including an upset win in the AFC Championship Game following the 2001 season.

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