Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 11:48 p.m.
Yes, the New England Patriots go to Pittsburgh to face a team that beat them in the regular season and has a 16-1 record with 15 straight wins.
But no, the Patriots probably won't lose to the Steelers in next Sunday's AFC title game. Nor are they likely to lose in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, probably against Philadelphia.
In fact, after winning two of the last three NFL titles, going 14-2 for the second straight season and shutting down Peyton Manning as no one has done since they did it a year ago, it makes you wonder what happened in 2002, when the Patriots missed the playoffs at 9-7. Dismiss that season and they are a unique team for any era, especially this one.
''What are they going to do now, change the rules again?'' linebacker Tedy Bruschi asked facetiously after Sunday's 20-3 win over Manning and the Colts. ''Make a rule that we can't play in the snow?''
Technically, the NFL didn't change the rules after the Patriots shut down Manning a year ago in the AFC title game. They only added a ''point of emphasis'' for the officials, cracking down on bumping and grabbing receivers after Indy complained they were continuously mugged in that game.
That change had little effect Sunday.
Even with free-agent rookie Randall Gay, safety Asante Samuel and wide receiver Troy Brown doing most of the work at cornerback in place of the injured Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, Manning's three star wide receivers could rarely get open. All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour, out with a knee injury, was hardly missed.
''Any other team that loses Pro Bowlers loses a lot,'' Manning said after the game. ''But the Patriots never seem to.''
It wasn't all defense, especially after intermission during what coach Bill Belichick called ''the best half we played this year.'' Corey Dillon, whose acquisition by the Patriots may be as significant as Terrell Owens' was for Philadelphia, ran for 144 yards as New England had the ball for 38 minutes, limiting Manning's opportunities.
Dillon is probably the reason the Patriots are favored by three points on the road against the Steelers, very rare for a visitor in a championship contest. That's effectively six points - the Steelers would normally get three for having the home field.
Yes, New England lost in Pittsburgh, 34-20 on Oct. 31, ending a league-record 21-game winning streak. But Dillon missed that game with a thigh injury and the Patriots rushed for just 5 yards on six attempts.
The spread also reflects the quarterback discrepancy.
Ben Roethlisberger is 14-0 as a starter, eight games better than the previous record for consecutive victories by a rookie QB.
But he is a rookie and the Steelers beat the Jets 20-17 in overtime Saturday despite Big Ben, not because of him. His two interceptions were disastrous - one was returned for a touchdown, the other led to a 43-yard missed field goal by Doug Brien that would have ended Pittsburgh's season if it was good.
Tom Brady, on the other hand, has won all seven postseason game's he's started, although he got hurt during the Patriots' title game upset in Pittsburgh three years ago and Drew Bledsoe came on to throw a TD pass that helped win the game.
That's not to say Pittsburgh doesn't have a chance.
The Steelers gained 417 yards against the Patriots in the regular-season game, including 221 on the ground. If they can run again (a better possibility if Seymour is out or hampered), they could control the clock the way the Patriots did against the Colts.
But New England's loss in that game came at a time when it was losing momentum, likely under the pressure of continuing their record streak (yes, even the Patriots occasionally feel pressure.)
Now they're picking up momentum, as they seem to do at this time every year.
They're also conscious that next season might not be so easy because they are likely to have to break in new coordinators to replace Charlie Weis on offense and Romeo Crennel on defense.
Weis already has taken the head coaching job at Notre Dame and has been spending time working for both the Patriots and Fighting Irish. Crennel seems set for the head coaching job in Cleveland, although he can't accept it or do any work for the Browns until the Patriots' season ends.
The way things look now, that's not likely to be until after the Super Bowl.
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