Cowher out to reverse trend


PITTSBURGH - Today's AFC championship game features mirror images on a likely snowy Heinz Field, from crushing running games to stifling 3-4 defenses to unbeatable quarterbacks.

What separates the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots is on the sidelines, where the playoff fortunes of Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick couldn't be more different.

Belichick, the gruff defensive mastermind of the Patriots, is looking to make coaching history. Cowher, the emotional, chisel-faced leader of the Steelers, is looking to avoid coaching infamy.

While Belichick has bolstered his reputation by winning at the Super Bowl, Cowher has repeatedly struggled in getting there. He is 1-3 in AFC title games, getting upset at home by San Diego (January 1995), Denver (January 1998) and New England (January 2002).

In league circles, this championship game has been touted as "The Genius vs. The Jaw."

"I want to win a championship," Cowher said. "It has been a void that has been there."

In many ways, Cowher has just as strong a resume as Belichick.

He has won more regular-season games and more division titles than Belichick. When the two went head-to-head in the same division for four seasons from 1992 to '95, Cowher won three division titles to Belichick's none with Cleveland.

But when it comes to winning big games, no one stands taller than Belichick, who is seeking his third Super Bowl championship in four seasons. With a victory, he will tie Vince Lombardi for the best playoff record among coaches with at least six postseason games at 9-1.

Belichick's excellence and Cowher's shortcomings likely are factors in New England entering today as a three-point road favorite.

"It's a nice compliment" that some people consider him one of the top coaches in NFL history, Belichick said. "I don't think it really means much this week. I don't think anybody cares about that. I'm sure Pittsburgh doesn't care."

Looming heavy on both coaches' minds is stopping each other's smashmouth running backs.

The Steelers, behind Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, ranked second in the NFL in rushing offense this season. The Patriots, behind Corey Dillon, ranked seventh.

Three months ago, Pittsburgh rolled over New England, 34-20, by rushing for 221 yards. If the Patriots want to win this rematch, they understand they have to be the more physical team.

"It takes 11 guys to tackle these guys," Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison said. "You have to stop the running game. You can't let them control the clock and just dictate the game."

These defenses don't give up many yards on the ground, much less points.

Pittsburgh, more commonly called "Blitz-burgh" at home, topped the NFL in total defense and fewest points allowed (15.7 a game). New England, though, is right behind, ranking ninth in total defense and second in points allowed (16.3).

Both of these defenses gave up just field goals in the divisional playoff round, but the Patriots' effort was more stellar. Mixing up their pressure - sending from two to six defenders - and coverages, the Patriots held the high-scoring Indianapolis Colts nearly 30 points under their season average.

"I didn't think anybody could stop the Colts," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Their offense is so powerful in what they do, but New England obviously finds a way. ... They do so many things, throw so many things at you. If they can slow down that offense, who knows what they can do to ours?"

Roethlisberger has had his normal ups and downs as a rookie, but his record is 14-0 as an NFL starter. On the other side, the Patriots' Tom Brady, the two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, is 7-0 as a playoff starter.

Despite his flawless record, Roethlisberger has come under heavy scrutiny since his poor performance in his postseason debut. Against the New York Jets, he threw one interception that was returned for a touchdown and another that led to Jets kicker Doug Brien's failed game-winning field-goal attempt to end the fourth quarter.

There have been questions about Roethlisberger having an injured thumb on his throwing hand (the Steelers said there is nothing wrong with it and there has been no medical attention given to it) and an ongoing debate as to whether he'll wear gloves (he said he'll try to go without them).

"We wouldn't be sitting here today if he hadn't done some of the things that he's done; let's not lose sight of that," Cowher said in defending the struggles of his quarterback. "I'm not going to overanalyze it."

At this point of the season - where the 47-year-old Cowher has endured enough of his own struggles - his focus is winning that elusive Super Bowl.

"He's at the stage of his career where he's made enough money, he's raised a family, he's been successful," team president Art Rooney II told Pittsburgh reporters last week. "The only thing left for him to do is win a championship."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad