While the blizzard snows continue to assault New England, skies are blue in Pittsburgh where the New England Patriots will battle the Steelers for AFC supremacy at 6:30 p.m. today with a berth a Super Bowl XXXIX awaiting the winner.
Pittsburgh was hit with a snowstorm that began Saturday morning and continued intermittently throughout the day and evening, but left maybe 3-6 inches of accumulation – nothing compared to the 2-3 feet falling throughout the New England region
At 11 a.m. Sunday, the temperature in Pittsburgh was a brisk 7 degrees with wind chills down to minus-12, according to Pittsburgh TV station KDKA.
Wind chill advisories will end around noon and winds are expected to calm down by sunset, blowing at around 5-10 mph at game time, hardly enough to affect the teams' respective passing attacks. If the winds do continue to blow as they have all morning, the passing games will not be the only thing affected. Stronger winds would obviously affect the kicking game and also present a challenge for the long snappers and holders.
Ted Johnson will play today after battling flu-type conditions earlier in the week. ESPN's Andrea Kremer reported that Mike Vrabel also was battling stomach flu symptoms yesterday and that the team had pedialyte on hand to keep the players hydrated with a nutrient-filled drink while battling the condition.
There is no news on Richard Seymour's status beyond what Bill Belichick reported Friday, which is that Seymour will be a game-time decision. If he can go on his injured knee, he is expected to see only situational duty.
The Patriots are prepared to play their most physical game of the season, and while Belichick's Patriots are 13-0 since 2001 when facing the same starting quarterback for the second time in a season, his team must stop Steelers running backs Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley from the game's outset to create any advantage against Steelers rookie phenom Ben Roethlisberger, who is 14-0 as an NFL starter.
Unlike Kordell Stewart back in 2001, Roethlisberger is the type of quarterback that can win for Pittsburgh if called upon to do so in a big spot, but the Patriots have to try to put the game in Roethlisberger's hands so that their coverage disguises and designs have a chance to make an impact.
If Pittsburgh has success playing power football this afternoon, then New England's creative coverage schemes become useless since the Steelers would just be coming off the ball and ignoring the Patriots defensive movements and looks.
First down defense will be critical for New England to force some passing situations for Pittsburgh, which is to say that the Patriots front seven must win the physical battle with the NFL's top offensive line – a tall challenge and one that wasn't met back on Oct. 31 when the Steelers controlled the football for more than 42 minutes and ran 49 times for 221 yards.
Beyond stopping the run, the Patriots also have to prevent big plays to wideout Plaxico Burress, who averaged a team-high 19.9 yards per reception this season. He caught a 47-yard bomb for a touchdown in the first meeting with New England while also catching a second TD on a fade route in the red zone, an area where he is particularly dangerous and has a distinct height advantage over any of the Patriots defensive backs.
Offensively, the key for New England is pass protection and avoiding turnovers, which may go hand-in-hand. Joey Porter had three sacks against the Patriots in the first meeting, and New England's front has to find a way to neutralize the Steelers zone blitz scheme that can create havoc for an opposing quarterback. It's particulary tough to execute in tha face of those blitzes when playing against a 3-4 front.
Tom Brady lost a fumble and threw a pair of interceptions in the first meeting, but hasn't committed such infractions on the playoff stage in any of his seven games while compiling a 7-0 record. Four of those playoff starts have come at home and two on a neutral field. The only other postseason road game Brady played was in Pittsburgh back in 2001 when he failed to produce an offensive point before leaving with an ankle injury in favor of backup Drew Bledsoe in a game New England won 24-17 at Heinz Field.
Corey Dillon, who did not play in the first meeting between the clubs, will play this time around, but will be grinding it out against the NFL's top ranked defense and No. 1 ranked rush defense.
Both teams enter the game with plenty of motivation beyond the impending berth in the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh is still reeling from its 2001 AFC Championship loss to New England and is playing the "no respect" card monopolized by the Patriots in recent years. The 16-1 Steelers are home underdogs, which hasn't sat well with them this week.
Porter, speaking on ESPN about how awful he felt after that 2001 game, stressed, "It won't happen again. It won't happen again."
New England is hoping to avoid a repeat of its own. The Patriots are motivated to avenge a 34-20 beating they took back on Oct. 31 in Pittsburgh that wasn't as close as the score indicates.
On a couple of side notes, with a win, Belichick can tie Vince Lombardi for the highest postseason winning percentage of any head coach with 10 playoff games to his credit. Belichick's postseason record is currently 8-1, including 7-0 in New England. His lone postseason loss came in Pittsburgh against Cowher's Steelers, who pounded Belichick's 1994 Browns team, 29-9 in a Divisional Playoff game.
A win for the Patriots would also make Brady 8-0 as a playoff starter, which would give him the most playoff wins without a loss in NFL history. He is currently tied with Troy Aikman for the top spot.