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mesaSteeler
11-14-2010, 09:39 AM
On the Steelers: Top spot in the AFC up for grabs
Sunday, November 14, 2010
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10318/1103260-66.stm

Two games, two different situations, one same result. It signaled the beginning of a dominant era in the National Football League, the advent of a franchise that would win three Super Bowl trophies in four years. And it did it by kicking down the door and taking the road that Bum Phillips always said would lead to the promised land.

Right through Pittsburgh.

Literally.

In two vastly different games played in vastly different circumstances, the New England Patriots launched their campaign as Team of the Decade with a pair of stunning victories in AFC Championship games at Heinz Field, first in 2001 when they were 11-point underdogs and listening to the Steelers talk about packing their bags for the Super Bowl and again in 2004 when they finally ended the magic of a rookie quarterback whose team became the first in American Football Conference history to win 15 games in a regular season.

They were the Steelers of the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s -- teams that won three or more Super Bowls in a decade.

And the coronation began right here, right in Heinz Field.

"It's funny because coach [Bill] Belichick always described the Steelers as similar to us, a team that really flew under the radar," said former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, one of the major factors in the 2004 AFC championship game. "They're not a bunch of self-promoters. They're a very smart, well-coached team that was very physical, a team that didn't make a lot of mistakes. This was a team that was really similar to us and a really scary team."

Scary was the theme when the Steelers ended the Patriots' 21-game unbeaten streak with a resounding 14-point victory on Halloween night, Oct. 31, 2004, at Heinz Field. But, no matter how impressive that victory, it was mere salve on an open wound that would fester for years for the Steelers.

The Patriots (6-2) return to Heinz Field today for a nationally televised 8:20 p.m. game against the Steelers (6-2), their first appearance here in five years. While the game is a matchup of the two teams with the best record in the AFC -- and teams who have won five of the past nine Super Bowls -- the arrival of the Patriots also serves to heighten the memory and remind the Steelers of what could have been.

If it weren't for the Patriots winning those two AFC title games at Heinz Field, it would have been the Steelers who could have claimed the unofficial title of Team of the Decade. They might have had at least one other Super Bowl trophy to add to the ones they won in the 2005 and 2008 seasons.

If it weren't for Troy Brown and a pair of special-teams plays that produced 14 points in 2001, it could have been the Steelers who might have won a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy.

And if it weren't for Harrison's 87-yard interception return and a number of big plays by receiver Deion Branch in 2004, it might have been the Steelers who won three Super Bowls in a five-year period, not the other way around.

"There's still a legitimate argument," Harrison said. "I don't think you have to go to the Super Bowl to be considered the team of the decade. When I look at the decade I look at the three teams that truly dominated -- the Steelers, you'd have to say the Patriots and you'd have to say the [Indianapolis] Colts. These teams have dominated, these teams have been consistent, these teams have won a lot of football games. They have been the consummate model of franchises.

"They're not the one-hitters, like the Bears, the year they snuck in the Super Bowl [2006]). They're the teams that played consistent, even when they lose their quarterback like New England did [in 2008]). They still won games, they still made the playoffs, that's what I looked at."
Super Bowl denied

The Steelers have had their moments of success against the Patriots, flickering though they may be.

Consider:

On Dec. 13, 1997, the Steelers pulled off one of the most improbable victories in franchise history, a 24-21 overtime victory in Foxborough, Mass., when defensive end Kevin Henry intercepted a Drew Bledsoe pass near midfield with the Patriots trying to run out the clock. Out of timeouts, the Steelers converted the takeaway into a touchdown and two-point conversion to force overtime, where Norm Johnson's 31-yard field goal clinched the division title.

On Jan. 3, 1998, less than a month after their unlikely OT victory in New England, the Steelers won a first-round playoff matchup with the Patriots, 7-6, on Kordell Stewart's 40-yard touchdown run. The victory vaulted the Steelers into the AFC title game for the third time in four years.

On Oct. 31, 2004, the Steelers were 5-1 and playing host to the defending Super Bowl champions, who were riding a 21-game unbeaten streak, including playoff victories. Behind rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw two first-quarter touchdowns to Plaxico Burress, the Steelers jumped to a 21-3 lead and coasted to a 34-20 victory. "The only thing I remember about that game was throwing the bomb to Plex," Roethlisberger said.

But none of those victories can change the scope or ease the pain of what happened in the AFC championship game losses to the Patriots, especially the one in 2001 when the Steelers were heavy favorites and literally were packing their bags for the Super Bowl trip to New Orleans.

"It was the 9/11 year and they didn't have the two weeks before the Super Bowl, so I'm sure the Steelers were trying to cover as many bases as possible," said Brown, the former Patriots wide receiver who single-handedly decided what would be a stunning 24-17 upset victory by the Patriots. "The way the whole season went, we were always the underdog and as a way to motivate team and have us ready, Belichick got ahold of the press clippings of [coach Bill] Cowher giving them a day off to get ready for the Super Bowl. It played right into our hands. All the stories in Pittsburgh were how New Orleans was decked out in black and gold."

Belichick and several players came to Pittsburgh a day before the rest of the team to do the mandatory press conference. One of the players was safety Lawyer Milloy, who got so irritated by all the local stories about the Steelers planning for their Super Bowl trip that he wanted "to smash the television" in his hotel room.

Instead, the Patriots smashed the Steelers.

And it was Brown who started history in motion when he returned a Josh Miller punt 55 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead. Curiously, the return came one play after Steelers wide receiver Troy Edwards was penalized for coming back in bounds on a Miller punt that traveled 64 yards to the Patriots 23, forcing a re-kick.

Adding to the misery is that the officials mistakenly put the ball on the right hash mark instead of the left on the second punt, giving the left-footed Miller less of an angle to punt toward the sideline, away from Brown.

"We always talked about how you don't want to have the coverage team kick again because they're tired and might not get down the field as fast as the first time," Brown said. "You never want to re-kick."

In the third quarter, leading 14-3, Brown and the Patriots' special teams struck again, this time when defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell blocked Kris Brown's 34-yard field goal and Troy Brown picked up the loose ball. With Kris Brown in pursuit and dragging him down, Troy Brown lateralled to safety Antwan Harris, who ran 49 yards for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

"That was one of the great things about that team -- we had a lot of starters playing on special teams," Brown said. "There I was, a starting wide receiver on the field-goal block team and returning punts. We had a lot of guys who played on special teams, too, which I thought that was the biggest difference. Sometimes starters don't want to play on special teams. There were no egos."
From bad to worse

After becoming the first AFC team to ever win 15 games in the regular season, and after being lucky to survive a first-round playoff game with the New York Jets on two missed field goals in the final two minutes by kicker Doug Brien, the Steelers had a chance to avenge their 2001 AFC title game loss to the Patriots three years later.

This time, Steelers turnovers were the culprit in a 41-27 victory that sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla.

A rare fumble by Jerome Bettis led to the Patriots' first touchdown and Harrison's 87-yard interception return of a Roethlisberger pass stretched the halftime lead to 24-3.

"The play that sticks out the most to me was Rodney Harrison's pick-six," Roethlisberger said.

"We knew he liked to take a lot of chances, no different than he is now," Harrison said. "I kind of baited him and that little second of hesitation, once he threw the ball I knew it was an interception. You knew he was going to try to squeeze some balls in there that weren't supposed to be in there."

The Steelers battled back to make it 31-17 on Roethlisberger's 30-yard touchdown to Hines Ward on fourth-and-5, but the Patriots sealed the victory with a 23-yard touchdown run by Branch -- his second of the game.

"We started off bad and ended up worse," said linebacker James Farrior, recalling the game. "That was a bad day for us. We weren't really on our game at all that day, from the beginning of the game. I just remember it was like 24-3 at halftime and I was thinking, Oh man, what the hell did we do? It was a tough uphill battle after that."

To be sure, the defeats prevented the Steelers from adding to the six Super Bowl trophies they already have on display, more than any team in NFL history. But it also could have changed the landscape of the 2000s, a decade that will be remembered for the dominance of the Patriots, not the Steelers.

"The Steelers are like complete replicas of the Patriots -- hard-hat guys who played hard, guys who played under the radar and weren't self-promoters," Harrison said.
Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com.


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