All good things

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Two more games. That's how long Ben Roethlisberger would have just as soon had his NFL-record 14-game winning streak as a starter last.

But the Roethlisberger's good fortune came to an end with Sunday's 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship here at Heinz Field.

"It's tough, everybody always asks the question can I reflect back on the season," said Roethlisberger, who completed 14 of 24 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns, but three costly interceptions.

"We had a record-breaking storybook season. Unfortunately, a lot of people will see it as all for nothing because we didn't go all the way. I learned a lot this year. It was my first year here. We had a lot of fun. We had a great year. Unfortunately it didn't end the way we wanted it to, but we can reflect on the mistakes we made and hopefully we won't make them again next year."

And that's what Steelers fans can take out of this season. Though the rookie made plenty of mistakes down the stretch - he threw 10 interceptions in his last five games, including five in two playoff games - he's going to get better.

Dating back to the final season of his college career, Roethlisberger had won 27 consecutive starts. But none of those games were played on a stage like the one he was on Sunday. And Roethlisberger looked shaky from the start, throwing a ball high and behind Antwaan Randle El on his first pass attempt. The ball was batted into the air by Patriots' cornerback Asante Samuel and the picked off by a diving Eugene Wilson.

"It's tough, but it's happened before," said Roethlisberger of throwing an interception on his first pass.

In fact, during his first start this season in Miami, Roethlisberger was picked off on his first pass. But he rallied the Steelers to a 13-3 victory in that game, starting his record-breaking run.

Things only got worse on his second interception, which was also his second pick that was returned for a touchdown in the past two games.

On second-and-six from the New England 19, Roethlisberger attempted a pass to tight end Jerame Tuman at the 13. Safety Rodney Harrison closed fast on the pass, intercepting it and returning it 87 yards for a score. Instead of drawing closer to the Patriots, the Steelers had dug themselves a bigger hole and now trailed 24-3.

"Ben did some things well, but you can't throw the three interceptions in a game of this magnitude," said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. "When you get down into the red zone you'd like to think you'll come away with a minimum of three points. But we got down there and gave up seven and that's a 10-point swing. The kid will learn. He's going to be a good quarterback and this was a tough learning experience."

  • © Plaxico Burress has been a figure of controversy since he was selected by the Steelers with the eighth-overall pick in the 2000 draft.

    There have been some high points, back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2001 and 2002, but let's face it, by in large, Burress hasn't been a player worthy of being the No. 8 pick in a draft.

    Burress will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and following the Steelers' 41-27 loss to New England in Sunday night's AFC Championship, he said when asked that he wouldn't be back in a Steelers uniform next season.

    "Probably so," said Burress when asked if he had played his final game for the Steelers.

    "It's Pittsburgh, which speaks for itself. They're not going to change. I'm not going to change. Three or four balls just doesn't suit me very well."

    And therein lies the problem for Burress. He has always marched to the beat of a different drummer. But he has never been comfortable taking a secondary role to Hines Ward and he wants to be an unquestioned No. 1 receiver, something he'll never be in Pittsburgh.

    "Everybody keeps telling me how important a person I am on this football team, but you can't justify that for me right now," Burress said. "Just look at the whole season - it speaks for itself."

    The Steelers wanted to return to a power running game this season, something they did quite well. And with Roethlisberger running the team, the passing game was scaled back.

    That meant fewer opportunities for Burress, something he obviously wasn't happy with.

    But though he wanted more opportunities, all too often during Burress' career, he hasn't taken advantage of the ones offered him.

    Take Sunday night's game, for example. With the Steelers trailing by 14 early in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger lofted a fade pass to the 6-5 Burress, who was being covered by 5-10 cornerback Asante Samuel. But Burress badly mistimed his jump and when the ball reached him, he had already reached the pinnacle of his jump and was headed back to the ground. Samuel easily knocked the ball away and the Steelers kicked a field goal.

    It's something that happened all too often during Burress' five-year stay in Pittsburgh.

    Somebody is going to offer Burress a lot of money to play football for them next season, likely a contract that will include a signing bonus in excess of $10 million. The Steelers shouldn't be among the bidders.

  • © Cowher wasn't outcoached in Sunday night's game. He was out quarterbacked.

    While Roethlisberger was throwing three interceptions, New England's Tom Brady didn't throw any. In fact, he threw precious few passes that the Steelers even got a hand on.

    Brady and the Patriots made the plays the Steelers didn't. You can call it outcoached. I call it being outplayed.

  • Corey Dillon didn't make much of a difference in the game, but another player who missed the first meeting between the Patriots and Steelers did.

    Deion Branch's 60-yard TD catch in the first quarter took a lot of wind out of the Steelers sails and quieted the largest crowd to see a Steelers game in Pittsburgh.

    While Troy Polamalu is a fabulous player, his aggressiveness was taken advantage of on that play. Polamalu bit on a receiver running underneath of Branch and left Deshea Townsend in one-on-one coverage with the speedy Branch.

  • The Steelers didn't have a penalty called on them in the game's first half, but were penalized on back-to-back plays in the third quarter during a series that really killed their chances.

    Aaron Smith was called for defensive holding on Kevin Faulk on a screen pass on third-and-17, giving the Patriots what amounted to a free first down. And on the following play, Clark Haggans was called for unnecessary roughness during a scramble for a fumble that ended up being overturned by replay.

    Dillon then broke free for the only play he made in the game, a 25-yard TD run that put New England ahead 31-10. Game over.

    Smith's penalty was a good call, even if it's a tough one for a defensive lineman.

    But the Haggans infraction was a little weak for an officiating crew that had only called two penalties in the entire game to that point. They had done a good job of letting the game be decided on the field to that point.

  • Was the Steelers' season a success?

    Sure. The Steelers are a year ahead of the curve in getting their franchise quarterback the experience he needs to lead them to a Super Bowl.

    The Jets are still waiting for Chad Pennington to take that next step.


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