PITTSBURGH (AP) _ New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick pulled his players together before the AFC championship game and let them know he was confident in their ability to beat the Steelers.
The feeling couldn't be more mutual.
``I think that was huge for us to hear from our leader, from our coach,'' linebacker Ted Johnson said after the Patriots beat Pittsburgh 41-27 to advance to the Super Bowl for the third time in four years.
I don't think I've ever heard him say that,'' Johnson said, apparently struggling to contain his emotions.I'm speechless.
``He just has it, whatever it is. He just finds a way. The way he motivates us; the way he can get a team ready mentally and physically. He's so tuned into his players. ... He just says and does the right thing at the right time.''
Belichick improved his postseason record as a head coach to 9-1, tying Vince Lombardi for the best mark in NFL history. A victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla., would give Belichick a third Super Bowl ring to go with the two he won as a New York Giants assistant.
It's very flattering to be mentioned in the same breath with Vince Lombardi,'' said Belichick, who has never lost a game with a conference or NFL title on the line.That's why the trophy has his name on it. I don't think I deserve it.''
Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls in Pittsburgh, Joe Gibbs won three in Washington and Bill Walsh won three in San Francisco. Belichick is among nine men who have won two as a head coach _ including Lombardi.
I'm just happy to play for him,'' defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said.Hands down, he goes down as one of the best coaches in history. I'm just happy to be a part of it.''
A week after embarrassing NFL MVP Peyton Manning, the Patriots defense did the same with rookie of the year Ben Roethlisberger, jumping to an early lead on a frigid Pittsburgh night in a stadium full of Terrible Towel-waving fans.
New England picked Roethlisberger off three times _ the first on his very first pass and the second for an 87-yard touchdown return by Rodney Harrison that gave New England a 24-3 lead. Eugene Wilson grabbed his second interception of the game when Roethlisberger overthrew Hines Ward with 7:29 remaining and the Steelers running out of chances.
Under the guidance of Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who is expected to be hired as Cleveland's head coach after the Super Bowl, a depleted Patriots' defense held Roethlisberger to 224 yards passing. Jerome Bettis carried 17 times for 64 yards but fumbled on a first-quarter fourth-and-1 and a fourth-quarter third-and-goal from the 3 that forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal.
``The strength of their team is the running game. Any time you can take that away and make it a one-dimensional team, that's your goal,'' said defensive lineman Jarvis Green, who subbed when All-Pro Richard Seymour was scratched.
Your goal is to stop (Bettis) and make a rookie quarterback throw the ball downfield,'' linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said.With Bill, it's pretty much cut and dry. He tells you 'This is going to work. This is not going to work.' He presents the players with a great opportunity to be successful. All we have to do is go out and perform.''
And they've done that better than any other team in football over the past two seasons, going 14-2 and reaching the Super Bowl in consecutive years.
It's tough but very gratifying. This team has worked hard,'' Belichick said.We demand a lot of them. They lay it on the line. I've never been around a harder-working group of guys.''
In last week's playoff game against Indianapolis, the Patriots held Manning without a touchdown or even a pass longer than 18 yards to beat the Colts 20-3.
Roethlisberger had not lost as a starter coming into the game, though he struggled last week against the New York Jets with two interceptions. But Pittsburgh was still awash in signs praising ``Big Ben'' as he tried to become the first rookie quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl.
Things didn't start well for him.
On the third play of the game, his pass went off Antwaan Randle El's hands, off each hand of Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel and into Wilson's. New England drove to the Pittsburgh 30 before Adam Vinatieri's field goal made it 3-0.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher went for it on a fourth-and-1 from the Patriots 39, but Colvin forced Bettis to fumble and Mike Vrabel recovered it. On the next play, Tom Brady hit Deion Branch on a 60-yard touchdown pass the Patriots' longest pass play of the season to make it 10-0.
New England was playing without starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, who have been out most of the season, and lineman Richard Seymour, who has missed the last three games with a left knee injury.