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AFC Champions -- Again!

Defensive struggle? Really, what does anyone really know?

The Patriots broke out to a 24-3 halftime lead and although the Steelers made it interesting in the second half, rookie Ben Roethlisberger made too many mistakes and the Patriots made too many plays for Pittsburgh to really have a chance as New England piled on the points to the tune of 41-27.

The Patriots are AFC Champs -- again.

Tom Brady was a humble 14 of 21 passing for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Deion Branch came up big with 4 catches for 116 yards and a score while David Givens had five catches -- all of them seemingly at key times -- for 59 yards and a score.

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]()Corey Dillon's mere presence was a difference from the earlier meeting of the two teams. While he only gained 73 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown, he was his usual clock killer as the game wound down.

Call it rookie jitters, playoff pressure or just a plain overthrow, but it was Eugene Wilson picking off Roethlisberger right off the bat. On the Steelers first series of the game, Big Ben ( 14 of 24 for 226 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions) faced a third and three and was high on his attempt to Antwaan Randle El. Wilson came up with the ball as it was tipped into the air off Randle El's fingers.

After a 14-yard end around by Branch, New England stalled and settled for a 48-yard field goal by Vinatieri against a decent headwind.

Pittsburgh was blanked on their second possession as well. This time, the Steelers moved into Patriots territory on a 16-yard completion to Burress slanting over the middle from his right side. Three plays later, the Steelers chose to go for it on fourth down needing a foot from the Patriots 39. The give was to Bettis and he was stacked up behind left guard for no gain. He actually lost the ball and Vrabel recovered.

On the next play, Brady went for the jugular and found Deion Branch on a 60-yard post for the touchdown. With 6:49 still left in the first quarter, it was 10-0 New England.

Pittsburgh got three back on a 43-yard Jeff Reed field goal, still in the first quarter. The scoring drive was set up by a short Josh Miller punt that landed at his own 48. Roethlisberger quickly moved his team within striking distance with a 19-yard pass to Hines Ward. Three plays later, Reed was good on his attempt to make the score 10-3.

Whatever momentum Pittsburgh gained was taken away later in the second quarter when Brady connected with Branch once again. This time it was a 45-yard bomb that Branch did an amazing job holding on to as he was leveled by Troy Polamalu just as he brought the ball down.

That play set up a 5-yard pass to Dillon that he took to the Steelers 9. Then, Brady waved David Givens wide and quick-passed. Givens made one man miss and trotted into the end zone for the score.

If that didn't quiet the Heinz Field crowd this next play did.

Pittsburgh was driving. Starting at its own 23, seven plays brought them to the Patriots 19. But on second and six from there, Roethlisberger made a critical mistake. He rolled right and looked to Jerame Tuman. He saw Tuman but he didn't see Rodney Harrison coming from behind. Harrison made his move and picked off the pass and went 87 yards for the score. On the return, Roesthlisberger was plowed under by Mike Vrabel for good measure.

A stunned crowd watched both teams head to their locker rooms after 30 minutes of play with the Patriots up, 24-3.

The Steelers went right to work in the second half, fist stopping the Patriots on three plays and then taking over at their own 44. A 12-yard pass to Randle El moved the ball to the New England 38. On second and 11, Roethlisberger hit Randle El on a quick pass that the Steelers receiver did all the work on, gaining 34 yards to the Patriots 5. From there, Bettis barrelled in for the score.

Pittsburgh could have really turned the tide when Brady hit Givens for 18 yards on the Patriots next possession. As Givens came down, he apparently fumbled and Pittsbrugh recovered. But the replay showed his knee touching before the ball came loose. Bill Belichick threw his red flag calling for the challenge.

The ruling on the field was overturned and the Patriots kept the ball. The play was huge. Not only did New England keep the ball with the 18-yard pick-up, but the Steelers Clark Haggans was flagged for roughing after the whistle blew to tack on another 15 yards to the play.

First and 10 at the Pittsburgh 25, Brady handed off to Dillon who took it around right end and scored almost untouched. The silence from the crowd was deafening as the Patriots regained its three touchdown lead at 31-10.

Pittsburgh wasn't about to roll over and showed backbone going 10 plays and 60 yards for a score on its next series. The scoring plays was a Roesthlisberger scramble resulting in a little flip to Hines Ward that Ward took down the left sideline from 30 yards out.

Looking to once again kill any hope for the Steelers, Brady looked downfield to Givens on third and seven on the drive that followed. Givens made another of his amazing catches, good for 44 yards. This time, it was Bill Cowher challenging the play, claiming the ball hit the ground.

The replay judge agreed and the Patriots were forced to punt for their own 28.

Randle El returned the kick to the Steelers 45 and Bettis immediately knocked off a 25-yard run to the Patriots 30. Roesthlisberger then flipped another short pass to Ward who just about scored were it not for his left foot that touched the sideline at the 4-yard line.

That play ended the third quarter and with Pittsburgh knocking on the door to get within seven, it looked to be a wild final 15 minutes.

The New England defense refused to open that door and after three plays netted only 2 yards for the Steelers, Reed came on for the short field goal to make the score 31-20.

The Patriots followed up that defensive stand with an offensive drive of 10 plays and 49 yards ending in a 31-yard field goal by Vinatieri. Brady spread the ball around, hitting Troy Brown, Branch and Givens, while Kevin Faulk chipped in with a nifty 17-yard run to the Steelers 13. From there, Pittsburgh dug in resulting in the field goal.

That left 8:03 to play and the Patriots up by two touchdowns.

Pittsburgh went into no-huddle mode and just like Wilson did to start the game, he essentially ended it by intercepting Roethlisberger as he looked to Randle El. The catch was a diving one and the Steelers challenged again but this time the rulling on the field stood.

By this time yellow seats began to appear where once black shirts sat as the fans began their exit.

It was clock-killin Dillon time as the Patriots halfback pounded the ball inside. His running and a nice sideline catch by Givens for 16 moved the ball to the Steelers 25 where the Patriots were fourth and 1. Faulk got the carry and made just enough as the clock ticked under four minutes remaining and the Steelers out of timeouts.

Adding insult to the already injured Steelers, Branch took a reverse around right end around into the end zone from 23 yards out to make the score 41-20.

Pittsburgh added an oh-by-the-way touchdown to make the final score 41-27 but by then the Patriots fans who braved the weather and came in for the game were the only ones left at Heinz Field and they were treated to watching Robert Kraft and his amazing team accept the Lamar Hunt AFC Championship trophy.

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