PITTSBURGH - Can a team win three world championships in four years and still get no love? Can it really be both dominant and underrated, overwhelming and under-appreciated?
We'll find out in two weeks, because the Patriots are once again making us doubt what we thought we always knew as fact about football, why teams win and why they don't. Next, in Jacksonville, they'll face the Philadelphia Eagles. They'll have the second-most dazzling quarterback. All their wide receivers put together won't equal the wattage generated by even a gimpy and questionable Terrell Owens. They'll have as many Pro Bowl defensive players on their injury report (two) as the Eagles will have at safety.
And in the end, it likely will mean nothing, just as it meant nothing last night in the 65,000-seat refrigeration unit known as Heinz Field at the AFC championship game. Sure, the Patriots were slim favorites on the road against a 16-1 team, but there was plenty of reason to believe that the two-time Super Bowl champs would walk out of the place numb, bloodied and beaten. Just as they had three months earlier, when the Patriots had their NFL-record win streak broken.
The Patriots won 41-27, but what did you really expect? Well, for starters, you didn't expect the Patriots to win, or to score 41 points. The Steelers gave up the fewest points in the league this year. The over-under was 34 1/2 . Do these guys just enjoy messing with people's heads?
Of course, last week, the highest-scoring team in the NFL, the Colts, scored just three. No one expected that, either.
At no point in this latest playoff run have the Patriots had the hottest streak, the most intimidating home-field advantage, the sexiest quarterback, the trendiest offense, the most future Hall of Famers, and certainly not the snappiest quote. Targets of the snappiest quote, yes: Mike Vanderjagt, Colts place-kicker/blowhard, called them out before last week's divisional playoff as "ripe for the picking."
Admit it, like Vanderjagt or not, part of you believed him, didn't you? Don't the Patriots always seem ripe for the picking? You could have made a case for that last night. What did the Patriots have to match a 15-game winning streak, a two-headed monster at running back, the young quarterback of the moment, the blend of a championship legacy and a recent history of heartbreak?
All the Patriots had was what they've always had: enough of everything they needed to win.
That corny bit from three Super Bowls ago, being introduced as a team rather than as individuals, still works for them, and it gets less corny with each win. As usual, you couldn't pick out just one player for game MVP honors. Not even Rodney Harrison, because the entire defense deserves credit for making Ben Roethlisberger, the rookie phenom, look as confused this week as the record-setting MVP, Peyton Manning, looked last week.
You can't pick out one wide receiver because they're so interchangeable. Which one smoked the Steelers' secondary deep twice? (Deion Branch.) Who shook Willie Williams down onto all fours to get free for a touchdown? (David Givens.) And who was that guy at nickel back? (Troy Brown, getting away with it again.)
Tom Brady was, again, Tom Brady. In spots, he looks as good as anyone who has ever played the position, as good as Manning, as good as the next quarterback to whom he'll take a back seat, Donovan McNabb. Yet he knows better than anyone else that he wouldn't be as good without the rest of the team, and they wouldn't be as good without him. To keep trying to make him the face of this team demeans him and what the Patriots are about.
The attempts to do so, though, reach comic proportions: After the game, Brady was asked how he manages to play so much better in the postseason than he does in the regular season. He laughed, possibly wondering if it had been some other team that had just run off 18 straight regular-season wins and back-to-back 14-2 slates.
"We had a couple of pretty good regular seasons," he said. Turning serious, he added, "It's not about me and what I accomplished. A lot of guys have a hand in this."
Too many for the Steelers to handle last night.
The last time it was close was five minutes into the second quarter, when the Patriots got the ball at their 30, with a 10-3 lead, and with the black-and-gold masses screaming through chattering teeth and cracked lips, "DEE-fense, DEE-fense!" Before the two-minute warning had arrived, the Patriots had bolted ahead 24-3, and extra shipments of Paxil were being ordered for the concession stands.
It got interesting a few times in the second half, but the white flag officially was raised over Steeltown early in the fourth, when Bill Cowher, inheriting Andy Reid's old role as destiny's bridesmaid, went for a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 2 trailing 31-17.
Cowher and his team thus announced to the world, "This is the best we can do."
Many a team has reached the same conclusion. Beaten again by a team that seems so beatable, until you actually try to beat them.