Showdown in the dead of winter

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b>The brutal cold air makes it a chore even to walk to the mail box; the snow plows are working overtime; the bulletins are scrawling along TV screens as we speak.<br><br> Still, The Genius remains unconvinced.

"We usually wait as a staff," New England coach Bill Belichick said of any game-plan changes as they pertain to the bad weather certain to envelope Heinz Field for tonight's AFC championship game.

"Things just change and that is the way it is in the January in the northeast," Belichick said. "Like the Oakland game a couple of years ago. It started snowing about - what time was that game? Eight o'clock? - well, four o'clock, somewhere in there. It was clear that the snow had started. It was going to snow. We were going to play on a snowy field. So, OK, then we made alternative preparations."

And you thought they called him "The Genius" because of his amoeba-like defenses.

No, when Bill Belichick sees snow, he knows it's snowing.

Chris Hope doesn't have that luxury. The free safety for the Steelers grew up in South Carolina and was schooled at Florida State. He hates cold weather and enjoys a solid heads-up on the forecast. But he can't wait for those last-minute alterations. His teammates make them for him.

"These guys always take my sleeves from me," Hope said of his under-uniform apparel.

"If I had them in the locker before the game, they'd take my sleeves from me so I've had to go out there with no sleeves on, and so I kind of gotten used to it."

Hope was asked for a prediction on the forecast, and he actually got the, ahem, drift. "Six thirty in Pittsburgh, no sun, it's going to be tough," he said.

The forecast, as of Saturday morning, Mr. Belichick, called for a low of 7 degrees with winds from 5-10 miles per hour. That's enough to put the wind-chill factor into negative numbers. It's the dead of winter in Pittsburgh and the 6:30 p.m. game means the fourth quarter will be played in the dead of night.

"It's going to be perfect," said Steelers running back Jerome Bettis with a big smile. "It's going to be perfect 'cause it's going to be at our place. So it's going to be perfect, trust me."

Certainly, the Steelers haven't fared well in the warm AFC championship games played here throughout the last 11 years. Remember the surprising rainy fog for the 1994 game against San Diego? Remember the sunshine during the 1997 loss to Denver? Remember the 50-degree weather greeting the Patriots in 2001?

This environment will instead be more akin to the heaping piles of snow surrounding the field in the 1979 AFC title game against the Houston Oilers. And if Belichick's complaining about a watered-down, iced-over field as the Oakland Raiders once did, you'll know the Steelers are making plans for their first Super Bowl appearance since January of 1996.

Does Bettis, or "The Bus", have snow tires?

"Hey, I'm built for it," Bettis said.

It figures to be perfect conditions for Bettis, Duce Staley and a highly motivated Steelers offensive line to take charge of tonight's game. Not only do the Patriots lack the might up front that helped the New York Jets for three quarters last week, but the Steelers are looking to pay back one Richard Seymour for his antics of the last meeting between the teams.

Seymour, in the fourth quarter of a hopeless game for the Patriots, head-butted Bettis and generally made a nuisance of himself by yakking in the faces of several Steelers. Rumor has it that Seymour punched Staley in the hamstring, thus causing a serious injury, but no one could, or would, confirm it.

Seymour, the Patriots' best defensive lineman, probably won't even play, and the Steelers might not even make the running game the centerpiece of their game plan as most suspect. If the Patriots attack the line of scrimmage as the Jets did, the Steelers believe they can exploit a secondary that's been weakened by several injuries throughout the season.

The Steelers, who showed last week they may even run better out of 3-receiver sets, could bring four receivers onto the field in order to reach deep into a Patriots' depth chart that was recently joined by former Steelers cornerback Hank Poteat last week.

The Steelers can win by running or passing, and they believe they can do either in the dead of night in the dead of winter.

It's a far cry from the way the Kordell Stewart-led Steelers entered the 2001 AFC title game against the Patriots. Then, they didn't have much of a passing game and the running game was stalled by a groin injury to Bettis that set him back almost two and a half years.

The memory of that loss still haunts the Steelers.

"It was a disgusting feeling. You remember that," Bettis said. "It's something that drives you and keeps you going."

It doesn't take The Genius to understand who holds the edges tonight, even if they're not reigning down on him at the moment.

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