PITTSBURGH - The New England Patriots are on the doorstep of a dynasty.
In an AFC championship game decided on the poise of the quarterbacks, the Patriots strong-armed their way to a 41-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers last night, punching their ticket for the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
New England, the defending champion, advances to play the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 6, just one win away from its third NFL championship in four seasons. The last team to accomplish such a feat was the Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1990s.
Big plays by New England's Tom Brady and turnovers by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger were the overriding factors in the Patriots' eighth straight playoff win and the demise of a Steelers team that had lost just one game in the regular season. The statistics were similar - Brady was 14 of 21 for 207 yards and Roethlisberger was 14 of 24 for 226 yards - but this one was about what each quarterback did at the critical moments.
Brady, the two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, showed a soft touch deep downfield and a cool hand on third downs, seemingly giving Roethlisberger a lesson in championship quarterbacking. With two touchdown passes - for 60 and 9 yards - he has thrown for a score in six straight playoff games, extending his postseason success.
Roethlisberger, who had previously won all 14 starts in his rookie season, threw wildly on pivotal drives and rarely looked off his targets. His three interceptions led to 17 points and ended a forgettable postseason for the first-round pick.
"Being in the playoffs, what I've learned is you can't make mistakes," said Brady, who improved his playoff record to 8-0. "If you don't take advantage of the open guy, you're not going to win. Teams are just too good."
The struggles of Roethlisberger represent another installment in Pittsburgh's recent shortcomings leading up to the Super Bowl. AFC title losses have become customary here - the Steelers are 1-4 at home in championship games under coach Bill Cowher - and the lasting chill had nothing to do with the 11-degree temperature, which was a record-low for the 4-year-old Heinz Field.
The physical contest turned on the mental part of the game - on a shrewd play by Brady and a lapse by Roethlisberger - in the second quarter.
With New England ahead 10-3, Brady struck deep, hitting Deion Branch in stride 45 yards down the middle of the field. Two plays later, Brady motioned David Givens back to the outside, where he took a quick pass and ran 9 yards untouched to the end zone (Pittsburgh cornerback Willie Williams had slipped at the time of the catch).
On the ensuing drive, Roethlisberger looked to answer and moved the Steelers (16-2) to New England's 19-yard line. But he stared down tight end Jerame Tuman and was picked off by safety Rodney Harrison, who read Roethlisberger's eyes and jumped the route in the right flat.
By the time Harrison finished off the 87-yard touchdown return, the Patriots (16-2) had staked themselves to a 24-3 lead and the sellout crowd of 65,242 was ready to throw in their Terrible Towels. The Steelers were unable to slice the lead under 11 points the rest of the game.
"That was at least a 10-point swing, maybe more," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Rodney's been a big player for us all year and he stepped up again in a big game."
The Patriots' point total more than doubled what the NFL's stingiest defense had averaged during the regular season (15.7).
"More so than what they did, it was just execution on our part," Brady said. "That's what it takes against a great defense."
After rallying to get within 31-17, the Steelers marched down to the Patriots' 4, where they couldn't crack the end zone on three tries. With 13 1/2 minutes left in the game, Pittsburgh chose to take the 20-yard field goal rather than take another shot at the end zone from the 2-yard line, which would have gotten the Steelers within a touchdown.
New England responded with a 10-play drive that ate up 5:26 and ended with a 31-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, pushing the Patriots' margin back to two touchdowns (34-20) midway through the fourth quarter.
Roethlisberger then was picked off for the third and last time as his overthrown pass was hauled in by safety Eugene Wilson. The Patriots converted the turnover with a 23-yard run by Branch to cap their scoring.
"It wasn't a great game on my part, but I learned an awful lot this season," Roethlisberger said. "We had a great season, but there are a lot of people - some in that locker room - that now think" it's a disappointment.
Since 2001, Belichick is 14-0 against quarterbacks he's faced for a second time. On a more historic note, he raised his postseason record to 9-1, tying Vince Lombardi for the best playoff record among coaches with at least six postseason games.
"I'm just so proud of these players," Belichick said. "I've never been around a harder working group of guys. Our team has played well in big games and this was a huge one."
No advantage at home
With yesterday's loss to the Patriots, the Steelers fell to 1-4 in AFC championship games under Bill Cowher - all at home.
Date Opponent Result
1/23/05 New England L, 41-27
1/27/02 New England L, 24-17
1/11/98 Denver L, 24-21
1/14/96 Indianapolis W, 20-16
1/15/95 San Diego L, 17-13
New England 10 14 7 10-41
Pittsburgh 3 0 14 10-27 First quarter NE-FG Vinatieri 48, 11:20. NE-Branch 60 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick), 6:49. Pit-FG Reed 43, 1:22. Second quarter NE-Givens 9 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick), 7:08. NE-Harrison 87 interception return (Vinatieri kick), 2:14. Third quarter Pit-Bettis 5 run (Reed kick), 10:54. NE-Dillon 25 run (Vinatieri kick), 7:27. Pit-Ward 30 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick), 2:35. Fourth quarter Pit-FG Reed 20, 13:29. NE-FG Vinatieri 31, 8:03. NE-Branch 23 run (Vinatieri kick), 2:23. Pit-Burress 7 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick), :52. A-65,242.
First downs 18 19
Total Net Yards 322 388
Rushes-yards 32-126 37-163
Passing 196 225
Punt Returns 2-6 3-40
Kickoff Returns 5-107 8-115
Interceptions Ret. 3-87 0-0
Comp-Att-Int 14-21-0 14-24-3
Sacked-Yards Lost 2-11 1-1
Punts 4-40.3 3-43.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 2-1
Penalties-Yards 1-5 2-20
Time of Possession 28:29 31:31 Rushing-New England, Dillon 24-73, Branch 2-37, Faulk 3-20, Brady 2-(minus 2), Givens 1-(minus 2). Pittsburgh, Bettis 17-64, Roethlisberger 5-45, Haynes 5-28, Staley 10-26. Passing-New England, Brady 14-21-0-207. Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger 14-24-3-226. Receiving-New England, Givens 5-59, Branch 4-116, Brown 1-11, Fauria 1-9, Patten 1-8, Dillon 1-5, Graham 1-(minus 1). Pittsburgh, Ward 5-109, Randle El 3-52, Burress 3-37, Haynes 1-14, Tuman 1-8, Rasby 1-6. Missed field goals-None.