FOXBORO, Mass. -- The Patriots' disdain for the Steelers' arrogance was greater than their respect for them as champions, and the emotions lifted New England to a 28-3 win over Pittsburgh before 60,188 at Foxboro Stadium in an AFC semifinal playoff game yesterday.
The Patriots (12-5) took a 14-0 first-quarter lead and then used the rushing of Curtis Martin (166 yards) and a strong defensive effort for an easy victory over the defending conference champions in New England's first home playoff game in 18 years.
The Patriots will get a chance to be host to another postseason contest Sunday when they play the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC title game.
"I keep telling you guys it's not always the team with the best record that wins, it's the team that is playing well and is hot at the time of the playoffs," said New England coach Bill Parcells, whose team rolled up 346 yards of total offense against one of the league's better defenses. "We just played extremely well today, and have been for a while."
The Patriots were hot, both on the field and emotionally. All week long they kept reading and hearing about the Blitzburgh defense, "The Bus" (Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis) and how the Steelers (11-7) had so much tradition.
By game time, the Patriots were tired of hearing about it.
"I don't want to take anything away from Pitt because they are defending conference champs, but they didn't give us any respect," said Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest. "I look on ESPN, and the Steelers are doing all the interviews and nobody )) is talking to us. It's their big defense. Slash this, Slash that and Bettis. People asked them what they know about us, and they said stuff like it's cold up there. That's degrading. Man, we took that to heart."
Patriots running back Keith Byars said: "We worked the past week and a half. We were mentally sharp. The coaches did a great job of preparing us. We were ready. We were like a bunch of caged animals. We were ready to explode."
The Patriots punished Pittsburgh in Steelers-like fashion. When Bettis took a handoff, New England linemen Ferric Collons, Mark Wheeler and Pio Sagapolutele crashed the gaps, taking direct routes to Bettis while McGinest and fellow linebacker Ted Johnson filled their vacated spots. The ploy worked as Bettis was held to 43 yards on 13 carries.
"Their defensive line did some stunts and caught our offensive line off guard," said Bettis, who also was hampered by a groin injury. "I wasn't 100 percent, so it was a rough day out there."
With the Pittsburgh ground game in check, the Patriots blitzed Steelers quarterback Mike Tomczak, especially from the perimeter. The Steelers were dominated up front as Tomczak was sacked three times, and hurried several others. The Steelers finished with only 213 yards, and another prime weapon, receiver/quarterback Kordell Stewart, had only 29 yards of total offense.
"Our guys took it personally that no one was talking about our defense," said Patriots linebacker Chris Slade. "We took it as a slap in the face and we responded by stepping up our game."
Actually, it was the Patriots offense that stepped up first. It jumped on Pittsburgh early and kept the crowd alive.
The Patriots struck on their first offensive play from scrimmage as quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw a 53-yard pass down the right sideline to rookie receiver Terry Glenn, who beat veteran cornerback Rod Woodson and advanced to the Steelers' 2.
On the next play, Martin ran a trap over right guard for a 7-0 lead with 11: 58 left in the first period.
"We had talked all week about going by him on the first play," said Bledsoe. "Once we got solid field position, I got the green light."
"You've got to try to attack," said Parcells. "We thought Woodson was a very aggressive player. We wanted to try to make sure that he knew we were going to throw a little bit. He has played well for so many years."
Afterward the six-time Pro Bowl cornerback was distraught. "It's tough when you lose like this," said Woodson. "The last thing you want is to get blown out in a playoff game."
The Patriots offense was relentless in the first half, scoring on three of its first four possessions. Byars made it 14-0 when he turned a screen pass in the right flat into a 34-yard touchdown with 7: 55 left in the first period.
Martin made it 21-0 with a fabulous run early in the second quarter. Martin took a pitch to the right, cut back toward the middle after he got around the end, juked safety Carnell Lake 7 yards down field and outran Woodson and cornerback Willie Williams to complete a 78-yard touchdown run with 9: 55 left in the half.
"I do remember seeing the strong safety crashing down in front of me and I do remember cutting back," said Martin. "I knew that if I could make that guy miss back there that it would be a footrace."
With a three-touchdown lead at the half, Parcells went conservative in the final two quarters. The big damage was already done, and his offensive strategy, which Parcells had two weeks to develop, had worked to perfection. Bledsoe threw long early to back the Steelers off the line of scrimmage, and then short- to mid-range on hitches and curls later in the first half.
These were all timing patterns with short dropbacks to hold down the Steelers rush, which had two sacks, but was largely unsuccessful.
And then there was Martin, who after Pittsburgh got on the board with a Norm Johnson field goal in the third, finished the scoring with a nifty 23-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
This time Martin took the handoff directly behind Bledsoe, shifted to his left, left linebacker Jerry Olsavsky around the 20 with a neat little hip move, then finished the run near the right sideline by carrying Woodson the final 3 yards into the end zone.
"He's the type of runner that takes advantage of all the opportunities that's given to him out there," said Steelers defensive end Jason Gildon. "He is so fast he can cut it back and make a big gain."
Actually, it was Pittsburgh's style that contributed to the big plays. Both times, they were caught in blitzes.
"You can make big plays when you blitz, but you can burn them at times, too," said Martin. "They rolled the dice, and they lost."
Pittsburgh ..0 0 3 0 -- 3
* New England 14 7 0 7 -- 28
Pub Date: 1/06/97