Foxborough, Mass. - With Sunday's win over the Indianapolis Colts roughly 16 hours into the past, the focus at Gillette Stadium shifted abruptly the morning after the New England Patriots convincing 20-3 win in the AFC Divisional playoffs. By the time Patriots head coach Bill Belichick met with the media Monday for his regular day-after press conference, he had already revisited game film of the teams' only previous meeting this season, a game Pittsburgh dominated in a 34-20 win at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh (15-1) won its final 14 games of the season to claim the AFC's top seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, leaving Belichick to expect dramatic changes aren't in place. Quite simply, the Steelers do what the Steelers do.
"When you win 15 in a row, you don't scrap everything you're doing," Belichick said. "You've been successful doing it, so a lot of that continues to carry over. They had a lot of success in our game doing pretty much everything, so I'm sure there will be some changes and mortifications but I'm sure the Steelers would keep a significant part of that just because it was so effective. They totally dominated the game in every phase of the game."
Pittsburgh dominated every phase of the first meeting on Oct. 31, in which the Steelers held an 18-point lead at the end of the first quarter. The Steelers defense turned the Patriots one-dimensional, holding the offense, playing without Corey Dillon, to five total yards rushing while forcing four turnovers and sacking Tom Brady on four occasions. Pittsburgh rushed for 221 yards of its own on offense, the most by a Patriots opponent this season.
Belichick said a key to Sunday's game would be matching the Steelers' physical intensity. It's a point that wasn't accomplished in the first meeting when Pittsburgh dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage.
"They're a very physical team," Belichick said. "They're one of the most physical teams in the league. We'll have to match that physical intensity. I'm sure that will be a big key to the game. You have to do that against the Steelers to have any chance of being competitive. They're very good at that; it's one of their major strengths. That's the way they play, and you better be ready to play that way."
The Patriots improved to 7-0 in the playoffs under Belichick with Sunday's win, advancing to the AFC Championship Game for the second consecutive season and third time in four years. If past success has taught Belichick anything, it's that Sunday's re-match with the Steelers is both a challenge and an opportunity.
"Is it going to be tough going into Pittsburgh and winning? Absolutely," Belichick said. "They've won 15 in a row, have put up the best record in the AFC and haven't been beaten in a long time. I understand how hard it's going to be. Our team understands that. They're the best team we played this year. But, at the same time, it's an opportunity and it's a privilege to be playing for the AFC Championship."
Belichick held a lengthy press conference Wednesday with a capacity crowd in the media workroom at Gillette Stadium. As always, you can download an audio version of the press conference on Patriots.com. In case you don't have the time to listen, here's a quick recap:
- The players were given the day off Monday. There is also no media access on Tuesday, meaning players won't be available to the press until Wednesday. The NFL will conduct national conference calls on Wednesday with a player representative from each team.
- Don't expect any bulletin board material to surface this week out of Foxborough or Pittsburgh. Belichick was quick to pay his respects to Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cower during his opening statements of Monday's press conference. "I have so much respect for him and the job that he's done through the years, and especially this year with a rookie quarterback and winning 15 straight and being the top team in the AFC. They deserve all the credit that they have gotten. They've been the best team."
- He noted the major difference in preparing for Ben Roethlisberger compared to Peyton Manning is the drastically different style of the Indianapolis and Pittsburgh offenses. "It's just a totally different style of play offensively. A lot of the passing game is coordinated and tied into the running game in the play-action. You're really put in a bind with Pittsburgh in terms of trying to defend the running game with two good backs and probably as good as an offensive line as there is in the league. It's just a different set of problems, both teams are very good, they're just different."
- He disagreed the Patriots running game would have been more successful in the earlier loss to Pittsburgh had they not fallen behind in the first quarter. The Patriots, without Dillon, rushed for five yards on six attempts. "I don't' think getting behind, you can blame it on that. When we did have a chance to run, when we weren't behind, we couldn't do anything. We just couldn't get anything done against them. That's the bottom line. Could we play better? I hope so." He went on to point out that the Steelers' defense leads the league in several statistical categories, including points per game (15.7), rushing defense (81.2) and total defense (258.4).
- Asked about the Steeler's front seven, he brought up defensive end Aaron Smith and linebackers James Farrior and Joey Porter: "I think they have some real good players. I think Aaron Smith is one of the best defensive ends in the league. Farrior is having a defensive MVP-type season. Porter can rush, we all know that. Porter has been a big-time producer for them for a number of years."
- When it was suggested that the Patriots remain a hungry team despite winning two of the last three Super Bowls, he pointed to the team's preparation and effort during every week of the regular season as a reflection of its mentality. "I think when you look for players and look for a team and the competitiveness level is high, that's what it represents - is going out there and wanting to win regardless of whether you won last week or didn't win last week. We have a lot of guys like that in our locker room. I think that really speaks to the team and the competitiveness of the team."
- He talked about the rotation of Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin at outside linebacker, calling it "a good situation" for the Patriots, adding that their production and ability to be interchangeable makes it easy for defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to call a game.
- With yesterday's win, Belichick improved to 8-1 all-time in the playoffs, one victory short of Vince Lombardi (9-1), who is the winningest coach (.900) in postseason history. He was asked Wednesday about his place among the greatest NFL coaches. "It's a nice compliment, but I don't think it really means much this week. I don't think anybody cares about that. I'm sure Pittsburgh doesn't care."
- He said that the Patriots two young cornerbacks, second-year player Asante Samuel and rookie Randall Gay, have risen to the challenges they've faced this season. Samuel (8 starts) and Gay (9), who both battled injuries this season, made their fifth start of the season together against the Colts. "I think that those two players in particular have had a solid year and done a good job. They've gone up against good people every week. They've hung in there. I think both those players have a good level of self-confidence, which is important. They haven't backed down. They compete well and stay after it."
- He brushed off the idea the Patriots enter Sunday's game as the favorite, a contrast from the underdog role they played going into Pittsburgh in the 2001 AFC Championship. "What do you think we're going to be this time after losing by 21 points there and them winning 15 straight? He was then informed that Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Patriots favored by two points. "What, did somebody burn those films?
- At the end of the press conference, he said that injured defensive end Richard Seymour is "getting better," adding that the injury report will be released Wednesday. Seymour missed Sunday's game with a left knee injury.