PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Too much Brady, too much Belichick.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were an unbeatable combination
again for the Patriots, exposing all of the Steelers' weaknesses to
end their 15-game winning streak and win the AFC championship 41-27
on a frigid Sunday night.
Brady gave the inexperienced Ben Roethlisberger a lesson in
quarterbacking a championship game, throwing two touchdown passes --
one to Deion Branch that gave New England a 10-0 lead in the first
Belichick upstaged can't-win-the-big-one Steelers coach Bill
Cowher, improving to 9-1 as a playoffs coach and matching Vince
Lombardi for the best postseason record in NFL playoff history.
"He said he had the most confidence in this team. I think that
was huge for us to hear from our leader, from our coach," Patriots
linebacker Ted Johnson said. "I don't think I've ever heard him
say that. ... He just has it, whatever it is. He just finds a
Now, the defending champions will play the Philadelphia Eagles
in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla. New England was
installed as an early 6-to-6½-point favorite.
The Eagles ended their three-game losing streak in the NFC
championship game by beating Atlanta 27-10 earlier Sunday.
One more Super Bowl victory -- and it would be New England's
third since the 2001 season -- and they might find some hardware to
put Belichick's name on. His players said their coach's role in a
commanding victory over a streaking team that had manhandled the
Patriots earlier can't be overstated.
"It's very flattering to be mentioned in the same breath with
Vince Lombardi," Belichick said. "That's why the trophy has his
name on it."
Brady put his name on a big game again. He improved to 8-0 as a
postseason quarterback, bettering Troy Aikman's 7-0 record at the
start of his playoffs career.
This game was a near-replay of Pittsburgh's breakthrough 34-20
win Oct. 31 that ended New England's record 21-game winning streak.
Again, an under-pressure quarterback kept making mistakes as a team
seized a 24-3 lead in the first half -- only this time it was the
rookie, not the cool-as-can-be Brady doing so.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, they couldn't throw a red flag
from the sidelines to overturn this performance, which saw
Roethlisberger throw three costly interceptions in his first loss
in 15 NFL starts. He had won 27 straight games dating to his final
season at Miami of Ohio.
"It wasn't a great game on my part, but I learned an awful lot
this season," said Roethlisberger, who failed to become the first
rookie QB to lead his team to the Super Bowl. "We had a great
season, but there are a lot of people -- some in that locker room --
that now think" it's a disappointment.
Staying away from turnovers is "important when you play the
really tough teams," Brady said.
"It's important to protect the ball and that's what we did,"
Brady was 14-of-21 for 207 yards and no interceptions to
Roethlisberger's 14-of-24 for 226 yards and two scores.
For the Steelers, it was their fourth loss in five AFC
championship games at home since 1995 under Cowher and, at least
psychologically, the worst. With a franchise-record winning streak
that brought back memories of their four-time Super Bowl champions
of the 1970s and a seemingly can't-be-beaten rookie who had
energized his teammates and his city, they were certain they had
what it took to get back to the Super Bowl for only the second time
in 25 years.
Instead, it had that same familiar look as those home-field
losses in the AFC title games during the 1994, 1997 and 2001
seasons, the last one also to the Patriots as a 10-point favorite.
So much for that all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl, too, in what would
have been a therapeutic matchup for a state that, before Sunday,
had seen its two teams lose six of seven conference championship
games in the last 11 seasons.
The Steelers publicly toed the Cowher-dictated corporate line,
saying they understood New England's role as a 3-point favorite
despite their 15-game winning streak and NFL-best 16-1 record.
Privately, they were motivated by the perceived slight and
linebacker Joey Porter promised they wouldn't flop in a title game
Then, they went out and flopped, generating boos from their
normally adoring crowd even before the Patriots led 24-3 by
halftime. Only an hour earlier, many of those same fans deliriously
twirled Terrible Towels during a feverish and colorful pregame
display that warmed up Heinz Field on an 11-degree night -- making
it the second coldest home game in Steelers history.
New England didn't have an injured Corey Dillon during that
Halloween loss in Pittsburgh, and the 1,635-yard rusher was
supposed to make a big difference in the rematch, but he had a
below-average 73 yards. Instead it was Branch, also injured and out
of the first game, who kept making big plays with his touchdown
catch, 23-yard touchdown run and 45-yard reception that set up
David Givens' 9-yard TD catch that made it 17-3.
Branch got behind cornerback Deshea Townsend for his 60-yard
scoring pass on the play after Jerome "The Bus" Bettis fumbled on
a fourth-and-1 at the Patriots' 39. It was Bettis' second fumble in
10 carries over two games after he went more than a season without
Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal -- matching the
longest in 4-year-old Heinz Field -- following Roethlisberger's
interception on his first pass of the game, on Pittsburgh's opening
"He struggled, had a bad game and I'm sure he would be the
first to tell you that," said Bettis, who failed to gain 100 yards
for the first time in eight starts this season.
Bettis is hinting he may retire as the NFL's No. 5 career
The Steelers wanted to pound big backs Bettis and Duce Staley
like they did in outrushing New England 221-5 in the earlier game.
Instead, New England's early leads forced them to do exactly what
they didn't want: ask Roethlisberger to win it for them.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Roethlisberger threw an interception
that Rodney Harrison returned 87 yards for a TD that put New
England up 24-3, and Pittsburgh's rushing edge was only 163-126
"The strength of their team is the running game. Any time you
can take that away and make it a one-dimensional team, that's your
goal," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said.
That wasn't the worst of it in a half that exposed all the flaws
Pittsburgh adeptly covered up all season: Roethlisberger's lack of
big-game experience and a suspect secondary.
Last week, Roethlisberger threw two interceptions, one for a
score, in a great-escape 20-17 overtime win against the Jets. When
he made the same kind of mistakes against a better team, the
results were predictable.
"He had happy feet and wants to run to throw and sometimes he
just lobs it up," Harrison said. "We knew we could make some
plays on the ball against him."
Belichick's Patriots are 14-0 since 2001 when facing the same
starting quarterback for the second time in a season.
"We saw a lot of things from them," Roethlisberger said.
"They did a little bit of everything. They threw the book at us."
Pittsburgh tried to get back in it in the second half on Bettis'
touchdown run and Roethlisberger's TD pass to Hines Ward, but a
replay reversal led to Dillon's 25-yard TD run and a 31-10 New
Pittsburgh could have gotten to within a touchdown early in the
fourth quarter, but was turned aside on three straight plays after
having first-and-goal at the 5 and settled for Jeff Reed's second