Dangerous? Yes!    Stupid? Of Course!

Catch the The Morning After every Monday.">
Dangerous? Yes!    Stupid? Of Course!

Catch the The Morning After every Monday.">

Morning After

<b>The Morning After --</b> Every week, uncut, honest thoughts first thing Monday morning, win or lose, before there's time for "the coach" inside to begin thinking rationally. <br><br> Dangerous? Yes!&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Stupid? Of Course! <br><br> Catch the <b> The Morning After</b> every Monday.

Careful what you wish for, right? Hey, if you would've told me last Friday night that the Steelers would be 3-point home underdogs to the New England Patriots, I'd have laughed and then called a bookie to make an investment in the local club.

But here we are. In the span of 48 hours, much has obviously changed, and not just in the national perception. I'm also a little leery of the local club because the Steelers are now a team with a rookie quarterback and a coach with a history of playing tight in big games. At least that's the only way I can look at them after their near-loss against the Jets.

The Patriots, on the other hand, are now playing with Corey Dillon. He wasn't with the Pats on Halloween when they were whipped in Pittsburgh. He's the reason Pats fans are throwing around the D-word today.

So how do we get back to that nice warm feeling we had last Friday night?

First of all, Dillon ran wild on the Colts. Doesn't everybody? The Colts allowed 4.6 yards per carry in the regular season, tied with the Minnesota Vikings for worst of the eight playoff teams that entered last weekend. So that is one strike against national perception right there, the Corey Dillon factor.

Dillon didn't play in Pittsburgh on Halloween, but he has played 13 games against the Steelers and gained 100 only twice. Sure he'll help the Patriots, but the Steelers have handled better backs all season long. The Patriots' offensive line isn't worrisome, and frankly neither is their passing game. It's a matter of putting heat on quarterback Tom Brady, and Dick LeBeau should be able to manage that.

It's the defense - Bill Belichick's baby - that's worrisome. On Halloween, the normally fast-starting Steelers could gain only eight yards in two series as the Pats took a 3-0 lead. The Steelers made their initial first down on their third series. Two plays later, Hines Ward ran for a 21-yard completion after Ty Law broke his foot while chucking Ward at the line of scrimmage. Law was clamped down on Ward while Plaxico Burress was being bracketed by Asante Samuel and the free safety. That's how Belichick defended the two receivers in the AFC Championship Game after the 2001 season, and that's how he was doing it again.

But after Law was hurt -- his last play of the season -- Belichick moved Samuel over onto Ward and inserted rookie free agent Randall Gay on Burress. Two plays later, in man coverage without a safety over the top, Roethlisberger hit Burress on a bomb for a touchdown. On the next play from scrimmage, Joey Porter sacked Brady and forced a fumble that the Steelers recovered at the Patriots' 27. Four plays later, Roethlisberger threw a short fade to Burress for another touchdown. One play later, Deshea Townsend intercepted Brady and returned it for a 21-3 lead. Game over.

The injury to Law was the problem, not the absence of Dillon. The injury opened the floodgates. Samuel was but a 2nd-year player in the game as a replacement for injured Tyrone Poole. After Law was hurt, the inexperienced Samuel was thrust into the role of shutdown corner and the Pats eventually had to revert to a cover-2 scheme that Duce Staley punished for 125 yards.

Since then, the Pats have recovered nicely. Not that Law or Poole has returned, but safety Eugene Wilson has been a big help in coverage and Rodney Harrison provides veteran leadership at strong safety. Samuel and Gay are more experienced and wide receiver Troy Brown played like a seasoned cornerback in virtually shutting down Brandon Stokely of the Colts on Sunday. So, yes, the Patriots have patched their biggest hole, and Belichick will certainly devise another plan like the one that worked for one title game and almost three series of another game. That and the return of a running threat make the Patriots a much more troublesome adversary this time around. And again, Belichick has won his last six in-season revenge games dating back to the 2000 season.

However, talent should be considered first, even if it is going up against brilliant coaching, and the Steelers' trio of wideouts has more talent than the triumvirate of Samuel, Gay and Brown. That cannot be minimized.

Roethlisberger will be the key. The Jets dared him to throw on first downs last Saturday, but he couldn't exploit their man coverage. The Pats will certainly play it the same way. They'll take away the Steelers' run game and dare Roethlisberger to beat them.

Can he? Well, that's the question of the day. It'll help that the Steelers are underdogs. That should take any tightness out of their approach, and we're hoping Bill Cowher has learned from the two previous underdogs he's watched closely.

The San Diego Chargers were supposed to be the team of destiny, and then played it too tightly in losing to the Jets. The Jets then became destiny's darlings and were supposed to play with "house money." But when it came time, the Steelers called the Jets' bluff and the Jets could only take timeouts and kneel into field-goal position like frightened turtles.

So now, following this progression, it's Cowher's turn to play too tightly, to take on the turtle role. Did he learn his lesson? Did he learn to play to win after watching the Chargers and Jets in succession?

The feeling right now is that he has. Cowher didn't win the award but he is the Coach of the Year for a reason. He's played all the right cards all along the way, and now he has the underdog mantle he so nobly wears. It's his niche.

The guy with the chip on his shoulder, that's Cowher. And now at 16-1, at home, he's an underdog to a team he whipped earlier in the year. It doesn't make sense, but that's what 48 hours can do to a national perception. Actually, when you think about it, it's the kind of thinking that's built Las Vegas. Knowing that, I'll stick to my guns. Steelers 26, Patriots 22.

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