Heading into Sunday's AFC title game against Pittsburgh, the Patriots knew they would need to contain the Steelers powerful running game and put the ball in the hands of rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It took just three plays to show why that was so important.
Jerome Bettis, the Steelers battering ram of a running back, picked up 4 yards on his first carry and a Roethlisberger scramble netted 3 more, setting up a third-and-three situation for Pittsburgh. That set the stage for Roethlisberger to have to make a play, which was just the scenario the Patriots coaching staff was hoping for all week.
Roethlisberger's first pass was intended for Antwaan Randle-El but sailed well high. Randle-El leaped to try to make the catch but the ball deflected off his hands, and then off Asante Samuel's, before Eugene Wilson intercepted the pass to set up the Patriots first points of the game.
It was a fitting start to the Patriots 41-27 win over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. Turnovers are always key in any football game, but particularly so in the playoffs where evenly matched teams are fighting for the right to advance. The Steelers turned it over four times on Sunday while the Patriots, as is usually their custom in the playoffs, protected the ball flawlessly.
That was ultimately the difference in the game. When Pittsburgh held onto the ball, it generally moved it with some efficiency. And when the Patriots offense was forced to mount drives out of its own territory, Pittsburgh was generally able to contain it. But when the turnovers came, not only were they short-circuiting the Steelers offense but they also were jumpstarting the Patriots.
In the first half, 17 of the Patriots 24 points came off turnovers, including seven that were the direct result of the defense when Rodney Harrison stepped in front of Pittsburgh tight end Jerame Tuman before racing for an 87-yard interception return for a touchdown. New England added seven more off the Steelers last miscue, which came courtesy of Wilson's second pick of the game midway through the final quarter.
The Steelers trailed 17-3 when Harrison made his play, and Pittsburgh was at the New England 20 looking to get back into the game late in the second quarter. Steelers coach Bill Cowher felt the game changed significantly on that play.
"Anytime you get in the red zone you'd like to think you're going to come away with at least three points," Cowher said. "We wound up giving up seven. That's a 10-point swing and that's tough to overcome. Ben did some things well but you can't throw three interceptions, not in a game of this magnitude."
Roethlisberger was erratic throughout the evening, making the Patriots plan of stuffing the run and forcing the rookie to beat them look good. While he made some impressive plays, showing why he took the league by storm by winning his first 14 starts of his career, his wild throws proved too much for the Steelers to overcome.
He finished 14-of-24 for 226 yards with two touchdowns and three picks. All three interceptions led to points, and two of the three were the result of poor throws. Both of Wilson's picks came after Roethlisberger overshot his intended target. The Patriots didn't apply much pressure on the rookie, instead choosing to try to keep him near the pocket where they felt they could best contain him.
He occasionally broke containment and made a few plays when doing so, particularly in the third quarter when the Steelers mounted a rally from a 24-3 halftime deficit. But when plays needed to be made, the Patriots defense had the answers.
Bettis finished with 17 carries for 64 yards, 25 of which came on one third-quarter run. Duce Staley wasn't any better with just 26 yards on 10 carries. First down figured to be of particular importance given the Steelers run-first mentality. Cowher likes to loosen defenses with body blows from Bettis and Staley before using Roethlisberger for big plays to talented wideouts Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress.
The Steelers managed just 35 yards on six first downs in the first quarter, and 19 of those yards came on one play. That means Pittsburgh averaged 3.2 yards on the remaining five first down plays. Of the Steelers 13 first down plays in the first half, 10 netted 5 yards or less. That put Roethlisberger in too many passing situations and the Patriots feasted on the youngster.
Conversely, the Patriots offense faced no such limitations. Corey Dillon, who had been so effective all season long, was completely stuffed by the physical Steelers front. He picked up just 73 yards on 23 carries, but 25 of those yards came on a big touchdown run in the third quarter that restored the Patriots lead to 21.
Even without Dillon's typical dominance, Tom Brady was able to hurt the Steelers with some long range tosses to Deion Branch. Brady went 4-for-8 for 139 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown, on passes of 15 yards or greater. Brady finished 14-of-21 for 207 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
That balance and toughness are hallmarks for these Patriots. Last week against the Indianapolis Colts and the top-rated offense in the NFL, New England held the group to just three points. This week against the league's best defense, the Patriots racked up 41 points. Whatever is necessary for victory, the Patriots have proven capable of doing time and again.
That's why they're headed to the Super Bowl for the third time in four years.