PITTSBURGH (Sept. 21, 2005) -- Though no team has looked better through two games, the Pittsburgh Steelers have not faced a real tough test.
Here comes a big one.
Facing the only team to ever beat him, Ben Roethlisberger will try to move the Steelers a step closer to the longest regular-season winning streak in league history as they face the club that owns the record in an AFC title game rematch with the New England Patriots.
"This is one of those games you circle on your calendar," Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward said. "You're not going to put all of your chips in one game. But when anyone plays the Patriots, you're going to play your best. You're going to have to play your best."
That's what the Steelers have done so far, winning easily against inferior teams Tennessee and Houston. Roethlisberger leads the NFL with a 153.6 passer rating, Willie Parker tops the AFC with 272 rushing yards and the defense has allowed a total of 14 points.
"The first two games have been a good start, but we have to prove we can do it consistently," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. "Right now it's too early to make any judgments."
A victory against the Patriots, though, would make quite a statement.
New England mostly dominated the AFC title game, getting out to a 21-point halftime lead en route to a 41-27 victory at Pittsburgh.
"I think that game will be on a lot of people's minds this week," Parker said.
It remains Roethlisberger's only loss in 17 NFL starts. He suffered three interceptions and New England forced four turnovers that led to 24 points.
Roethlisberger has recovered from that performance, and a mediocre preseason, to get off to an outstanding start. He has nine incompletions in 32 attempts, passing for 472 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
His counterpart is looking to bounce back from a subpar performance, and the Patriots will be trying to avoid suffering back-to-back losses for the first time since December 2002.
Tom Brady had the 100th touchdown pass of his career Sept. 19 at Carolina, but finished 23-for-44 for 270 yards with an interception and a fumble in the 27-17 defeat. It was only the fourth loss in the past 38 games for the Patriots.
"Everyone wants to judge us and gauge us on what happened in the past, but this is a totally different team," New England safety Rodney Harrison said. "People have to realize that and we understand that. So there's no guarantee that we're going to go out there and do anything."
The Patriots will go into this matchup looking to halt the Steelers' run of 15 consecutive regular-season victories. When these teams met in the regular season last year, Pittsburgh won 34-20 on Oct. 31 to end New England's NFL-record streak of 18 regular-season victories.
Corey Dillon was inactive for that game due to a thigh injury, and the Patriots were held to 5 yards rushing. Dillon ran for 73 yards and a touchdown in the AFC championship game as New England totaled 126 yards on the ground.
The threat of Dillon out of the backfield surely makes a difference, but the nine-year veteran is off to a slow start. He has gained 2.7 yards per carry and has been held below 70 yards in both games -- something that didn't happen last season.
"My frustrated days are over. I'm too old to be frustrated," Dillon said. "All I can do is work to get better. I think I've been tested for situations like this. I'm not going to say it's not a concern, but it's not the end of the world. I know it's going to get better."
Pittsburgh is having no such problems running the ball, even with its preseason third-string running back carrying the workload.
Cowher says Parker will continue to start even when Jerome Bettis (calf) and Duce Staley (knee) are healthy enough to play, though Parker doesn't yet believe that.
"I'm still not convinced," he said. "I don't care what Coach Cowher or anybody thinks. I just need to go out and contribute from week to week and things will work out."
STANDINGS: Patriots -- 1st place (tied), AFC East. Steelers -- 1st place (tied), AFC North.
PATRIOTS LEADERS: Offense -- Brady, 576 passing yards and 3 passing TDs; Dillon, 99 rushing yards and 2 rushing TDs; Deion Branch, 15 receptions and 159 receiving yards; Branch, Tim Dwight and Daniel Graham, 1 receiving TD. Defense -- Rosevelt Colvin, Jarvis Green and Mike Vrabel, 1 sack; Vrabel, 1 INT.
STEELERS LEADERS: Offense -- Roethlisberger, 472 passing yards and 4 passing TDs; Parker, 272 rushing yards and 2 rushing TDs; Ward, 8 receptions and 2 receiving TDs; Antwaan Randle El, 164 receiving yards; Defense -- Troy Polamalu, 3 sacks; Polamalu and Ricardo Colclough, 1 INT.
PATRIOTS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense -- 56.0 yards per game (29th in NFL); Passing Offense -- 277.5 ypg (5th); Total Offense -- 333.5 ypg (12th). Rushing Defense -- 98.0 ypg (12th); Passing Defense -- 196.0 ypg (14th); Total Defense -- 294.0 ypg (12th).
STEELERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense -- 170.5 ypg (1st); Passing Offense -- 235.5 ypg (14th); Total Offense -- 406.0 ypg (3rd). Rushing Defense -- 105.0 ypg (17th); Passing Defense -- 157.0 ypg (3rd); Total Defense -- 262.0 ypg (5th).
LAST MEETING: Jan. 23; Patriots, 41-27. At Pittsburgh, Brady threw two touchdown passes to help New England reach its third Super Bowl in four seasons. Branch had a 23-yard TD run, caught a 60-yard TD pass and finished with 153 yards from scrimmage.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Patriots -- New England has won four of the past five meetings with the Steelers, including the 2001 and 2004 AFC title games in Pittsburgh. ... WR Troy Brown is six receptions shy of catching Ben Coates (490) for second-most in team history, and 86 yards behind Irving Fryar (5,726) for second-most. ... The Patriots' run of 35 consecutive weeks without back-to-back losses is the longest current streak in the NFL and longest in team history. The post-merger NFL record is 60, set by San Francisco from 1995-99. Steelers -- This is Pittsburgh's 15th 2-0 start, and fifth since Cowher took over in 1992. ... RB Parker has 47 carries this season, 15 more than he had during his entire rookie year of 2004. ... The Steelers have yet to commit a turnover and have forced five.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Patriots -- 0-1 on the road; Steelers -- 1-0 at home.
The Associated Press News Service
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