Pittsburgh's starting duo at wide receiver, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward, both had more than 1,000 receiving yards in the regular season, but that may not be the most important thing they do this Sunday.
The Steelers receivers are as good as any in the league at blocking. Their ability to crack back and block defenders opens up the running game. Pittsburgh ran for 2,774 yards in the regular season, and much of that had to do with Burress, Ward and the other receivers keeping the opposition occupied.
"These guys set the standard," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "They are aggressive and they will crack, no matter who it is. Safeties, linebackers, defensive ends, whoever they are cracking on they will come in and do a real good job. They take a lot of pride and it is important to them. A lot of guys just want to catch the ball. These guys will block, and that is what turns 5-yard runs into 25-yard runs."
In some ways, the Pittsburgh offense is just as hard to stop as the St. Louis contingent. While the Rams air assault spreads defenses thin, the Steelers pound defenses into the ground. Knowing the likes of Kordell Stewart, Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala need to be slowed down prevents Burress and Ward from getting extra coverage. Defenses have to pick which aspect of the offense they want to load up on.
"St. Louis doesn't run the ball like Pittsburgh does," Belichick said. "Pittsburgh has a more balanced running attack, and the St. Louis receivers don't crack back the way the Steelers do. St. Louis is a more explosive team in some respects, but when you are playing in the northeast at this time of year, the elements Pittsburgh has makes them as formidable a football team as you can have at this time of year."
Battles coming up front
Sunday's AFC Championship is expected to be an old-fashioned, smash-mouth football game. The Steelers defense is a physical group, while the Patriots have gotten where they are on the strength of a running game and short passing game.
While both teams have shown gadget plays throughout the year, and seeing some this weekend would not be a surprise, the outcome of the game will be determined by the ability to control the line of scrimmage.
"It has to be a combination of us doing what we do best while handling what they do well," guard Mike Compton said. "We are not going to put in a lot of fancy stuff. There will be a lot of simple plays, and the bottom line will come down to our offensive line controlling their defense. In order to get receivers open and establish the running game, we have to handle their front seven."
The grind-it-out type of game suits these Patriots well. As a group, New England is somewhat of a no-name bunch, a true collection of teammates more concerned with the bottom line than individual accomplishment. Compton feels this attitude has helped the Patriots get to this point in the season.
"I'm sure you could ask people to name the Patriots roster, and they would have problems, as opposed to the St. Louis' or San Francisco's out there," Compton said. "This is a group of guys just trying for the same goal, which is winning the AFC Championship to get a chance to win the ultimate prize."
Now or never
Belichick's message to his team is quite simple.
"It's the AFC Championship," Belichick said. "It doesn't get much better than this. Let's face it, when you play a championship game, some guys will look back on it and it will be the only one they play in or coach in. That's the way it's going to go for some people in their career. These opportunities just don't come down the road, and you can't count on them every year. I think we all have to look at it as this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing."
Punter Ken Walter and his wife are expecting the birth of a baby boy any day now. Walter has every intention of playing Sunday in Pittsburgh, and if the baby has not yet been born, Walter's wife will be induced Monday… As they did last week, the team traveled to Boston College for practice Thursday… Pittsburgh and New England are the only two teams to win three division titles over the last six seasons.