In a game expected to be rather low-scoring, the Patriots clobbered the Pittsburgh Steelers 41-27 in yesterday's AFC Championship game. The Patriots used a combination of tough, consistent defense and some big plays at opportune times to get out to a big lead. The Patriots led 24-3 at the half, and never let Pittsburgh back in the game. For detailed game reviews, check out Nick Cafardoof The Boston Globe, Dan Shaughnesseyof the Globe, Michael Felgerof The Boston Herald, Jarret Bellof USA Today, Tom Curranof The Providence Journal, Mike Reissof The MetroWest Daily News, Mike Loweof The Portland Press Herald, and Michael Parenteof The Woonsocket Call.
According to the players, coach Bill Belichick set the tone for yesterday's win when he addressed the team before the game. Belichick expressed a confidence in his players' ability to do their jobs, and greatly inspired the Patriots by speaking from the heart. Belichick is sure to be one of the main storylines leading up to the Super Bowl, as he has tied Vince Lombardi's 9-1 postseason mark. Kevin Paul Dupontof the Globe, Felger, Reiss, and Shalize Manza Youngof The Providence Journal get the ball rolling on Belichick's remarkable achievements.
As impressive a playoff record as Belichick has, it is not quite as impressive as that of Tom Brady. With yesterday's win, in which he threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns, Brady ran his postseason mark to 8-0. Brady was magnificent yesterday, playing mistake-free football against a Pittsburgh defense that had brutalized him in the previous meeting. Jim McCabeof the Globe, Karen Guregianof the Herald, Gary Mihocesof USA Today, Jim Donaldsonof the Journal, and Lowe recount Brady's performance.
The most exciting player in yesterday's game was Pats wide receiver Deion Branch, who missed the last tilt in the 'Burgh due to injury. The Patriots offense opened the game with an end-around to Branch that went for 14 yards. They closed the game with the same play, this time going for 23 yards and a touchdown. In between, Branch caught four balls for 116 yards, including a gorgeous 60-yard strike from Brady that put the Pats up 10-0 in the first quarter. Branch, who caught ten balls for 143 yards in last year's Super Bowl, will surely get his share of attention over the next two weeks. John Powersof the Globe, Steve Conroyof the Herald, Manza Young, and Alan Greenbergof The Hartford Courant laud the 5'9 speedster's monster game.
Last week's offensive star, Corey Dillon, was comparatively quiet against a tough Steelers run D, but that does not mean he did not put his stamp on the game. After a David Givens fumble recovered by the Steelers was reversed and given back to Nw England, the Pats looked for the knockout blow. It came from Dillon who, on the very next play, found a lane and went 25 yards for the score. Dillon, who carried 24 times for 73 yards, gave the Pats a 31-10 lead on his longest run of the day. Cafardo, Rich Thompson of the Herald, and Manza Young cover Dillon's day.
Jerry Spar of the Herald recounts Givens' day. Givens, who caught two touchdown passes against the Steelers in October, had a team-high five catches to go along with 59 yards and a score. Givens contributed in many unsung ways as well, often throwing the key block to spring another receiver for a gain.
As good as the offense executed yesterday, much credit goes to the defense for harassing rookie Ben Roethlisberger into a difficult evening. Big Ben, who had never lost a game in his fledgling career, threw three interceptions and several other ill-advised passes into coverage. Seemingly at every turn, Roethlisberger's throws met the pesky defense of Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel. Samuel defensed four of the rookie's passes, while Wilson defensed two to go along with two interceptions. Conroy and Manza Young praise the young, game-changing D-backs.
Rodney Harrison, who has shepherded Wilson and Samuel thoughout their young careers, had another huge game in the national spotlight. Harrison, who led the team with ten tackles, made his biggest play shortly before the half. Having reached the Patriots red zone, the Steelers, down 17-3, looked to pull within one touchdown before the half. On a second-and-six, Roethlisberger dropped back and looked toward the sidelines for an out-route. Reading the play from the get-go, Harison stepped in front and, with the help of lead blocker Mike Vrabel, returned the pick for an 87-yard touchdown. Chris Snowof the Globe has more.
Manza Young reviews the Pats ability to shut down the run, holding the two-headed monster of Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley to 90 yards on 27 carries. Middle linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson both made it a point early in the game to tattoo Bettis and send a message to the hard-nosed Pittsburgh offense.
Bob Ryan of the Globe looks ahead to the Super Bowl, and wonders how anyone can envision a scenario other than a Patriots win.
Ron Borges of the Globe highlights the Patriots ability to counterpunch as a key to victory. Having built a 24-3 halftime lead, the Pats were in solid position with 30 minutes to play. When Pittsburgh found the endzone on their first possession of the second half to pull within 24-10, the Pats answered with the Dillon touchdown. Similarly, when a Pittsbugh field goal cut the Pats lead to 31-20 early in the fourth, New England answered with a five-minute-plus drive that resulted in an Adam Vinatieri three-ball.
Mark Blaudschun of the Globe covers the losing team, discussing the rookie mistakes that led to the Steelers downfall.
Blaudschun also features Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who lost his third straight AFC title game.
Frank Dell'Apa of the Globe spotlights Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who is a Massachusetts native and close acquaintance of Pats owner Robert Kraft.
Kevin Mannix of the Herald drops the "D-word," kicking off what is sure to be a two-week dynasty debate.
Keep an eye on The Blitz as we roll towards Jacksonville. With the Steelers in their rear-view, the focus will shift to the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.