Big Ben turns to Gentle Ben in Steelers' loss

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Too much Brady, too much Belichick.

The New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl for

the third time in four seasons because they simply overwhelmed Big

Ben, stopping him and the Pittsburgh Steelers cold.

Most consecutive playoff wins

to start career by starting QB

PlayerStreakSuper Bowl wins during streak

Tom Brady



Troy Aikman



Joe Theismann



Jim Plunkett



*Active streak

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,"

he said.

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

this time.

"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

England lead.

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

field goal.