Sunday, January 23, 2005

First and 10: Patriots-Steelers

So here they go again, to that familiar destination that never, ever gets old. For the third time in four years, the New England Patriots are on their way to the Super Bowl, having left one more demolished opponent in their wake.

One week after embarrassing league MVP Peyton Manning and dismantling his supposedly unstoppable Colts' offense, the Patriots stomped onto Heinz Field in Pittsburgh today and put a devastating end to the Pittsburgh Steelers' 15-game win streak, winning by a 41-27 score that really wasn't that close.

In claiming the fifth AFC Championship in their history, the Patriots accomplished a few other tasks against the Steelers:

They taught rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger (3 picks, fear in his eyes) that he has a long way to go before he is as good as the starmakers want us to believe he is.

They reminded Bill Cowher that there is more to coaching that sticking your chin out and spitting like a rabid mutt.

And they put up 41 spectacular points on the league's most impenetrable defense. It's no wonder that by the end of the day, all that those cute little yellow Terrible Towels were good for was wiping up blood, tears and, presumably, ketchup.

So . . . any more questions, NFL-know-it-alls?

Didn't think so. After what we've witnessed the last two weeks, everyone from Peyton Manning's daddy to Bill Cowher's dentist must realize that the Patriots are far and away the premier team in the NFL. There is no one else close, the Philadelphia Eagles included, as Donovan McNabb's soup-hawking mom is about to find out if she hasn't been paying attention.

Here's the truth about these Patriots: It's not just that they decimate their opponents . . . it's that they do it by systematically destroying what the opponent does best, by hammering them, humiliating them and filling them with self-doubt. They have an uncanny talent for morphing into exactly what they need to be on a particular day. One week, they're making the high-flying Colts look like they're just learning how throw a forward pass. The next week, they're making Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain Revisited defense look like it is made of doilies and lace.

The Patriots beat you at your own game, beat you with strategy, smarts and a hell of a lot of talent, and when it looks like you may be showing signs of life, they beat you down and step on your throat for good measure.

And just where has this approach taken them? To the Super Bowl, one more time. And to the brink of history.

With two weeks of insufferable hype awaiting - as if we'll buy it when the network hairdos try to convince us the Eagles have a chance - it's First and 10, Patriots . . .

1) There was a certain been-there, done-that feel to the Patriots' postgame celebration, much more subdued than in the past. Even Bob Kraft kept it short and sweet on the podium, perhaps fearing he might be propositioned by the man presenting the AFC Championship trophy, Joe Namath. ("Mr. Kraft . . . I want to kisssth you.") I don't mean to suggest that the Patriots are getting bored with winning AFC Championships; I simply took their understated but clearly joyous celebration took to mean that they realize there is unfinished business two weeks from now, and once that is resolved, then and only then will it be time to party like a champ.

2) Belichick is now 9-1 in the postseason, tying him with some cat named Lombardi for the all-time best playoff mark. A win against the Eagles next week, and that will make five rings for Belichick - two as the defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells's Giants, and three as the head honcho here. (Not that we're counting championships before they've hatched, mind you.) My point: The debate is no longer about whether he's a better coach than the Tuna. The debate is about whether any coach in history can measure up to him.

3) If one play in the game symbolized what these Patriots are all about, it was Rodney Harrison slowing up 50 yards into his 87-yard interception return for a touchdown, allowing Mike Vrabel to catch up and cream the remaining would-be tackler, poor Mr. Roethlisberger. The Patriots' intelligence, hustle and desire were magnified by the fact that every other Steeler abandoned pursuit about the time the pass settled into Harrison's hands.

4) Not that the Steelers gave up on the game, mind you. The Patriots held leads of 10-0, 24-3 and 31-10, yet Pittsburgh never allowed the leads to seem insurmountable - their resolve was impressive. If there was a turning point, it came early in the fourth quarter, with the Pats leading 31-17 and Pittsburgh looking at a first-and-goal from the Pats' 6. The Pats held their ground, as they so often do in short-yardage situations, and the Steelers found themselves facing fourth-and-goal from the 1. Bill Cowher kicked the field goal, the safe move if not the correct one. I couldn't fault him for taking the points there, but I also looked at it this way: If Bettis (or the underutilized Duce Staley) punches it in for a touchdown, the Pats' lead is down to 7 and all the momentum is in the home team's favor. I know I'm not the only one who breathed a sigh of relief when Pittsburgh settled for the three points.

5) Brady was 14-of-21 for 207 yards and two TDs, numbers that once again don't come close to explaining how truly spectacular he was. The Steelers pressured him all day with their fierce blitz and challenged him to throw deep. So what does he do? He steps up in the pocket and lets it rip. When he hit Branch in stride for a 60-yard touchdown (and 10-0 lead) in the first quarter, the first thing I thought: That might the prettiest deep ball I've ever seen. Second thing: Bet the Bledsoe toadies who claimed Brady couldn't throw deep are feeling foolish once again. Anyway, there's only one stat that matters to this guy: 8-0. I imagine you know what it represents.

6) Corey Dillon and Deion Branch (below, with David Givens after Branch's 60-yard TD reception) combined for 228 yards and three touchdowns. Think Steeler fans still believe their absence in the earlier meeting was nothing but a Pats fan's excuse for the loss?

7) Dillon didn't have sparkling final stats - 24 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown - but he ran as hard as always while absorbing some vicious whacks from the hard-hitting Steeler defense. It may not be fair to say that Dillon wanted this one more than anyone - that might be underestimating the will of his teammates - but I think we can say that no one is savoring it more than the emancipated Bengal. As the game wound to a close, Dillon was whooping and barking and flexing, more jacked and pumped than Pete Carroll on quaaludes. As my buddy Mistler said: What was up with Dillon channeling David Banner at the end of the game? He was rather Hulk-like, though he never quite turned green. That was left to the Steelers, who could not hide the color of their envy.

8) And the beat goes on for the best postseason kicker in NFL history. Three minutes into the game, and Adam Vinatieri ties the record for the longest field-goal in Heinz Field history, a 48-yard boot that must have felt like kicking an anvil in the frigid temperatures. I'm almost hoping he kicks another game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl, just solidify his Hall of Fame case even more. I'd rather he kick about six extra points, though.

9) Two picks for Eugene Wilson - one that set the tone early, and one that sealed the deal late. The kid is starting to remind me of Ronnie Lott in his early incarnation during the Niner dynasty - a cornerback who switched to safety and became a killer hitter. I'm not saying he's that good. But I'm not saying he won't be, either.

10) If you're a lifelong Pats fan, a survivor of Rod Rust and Clive Rush, of lost eras and stupid errors, then you know better than to take this golden age of Boston sports for granted. But it doesn't hurt to be reminded once in a while. So, if you'll pardon my lecture, please, remember to enjoy every moment of this, to appreciate every player and coach, to savor every game, every spectacular touchdown, every bone-jarring tackle. Just because we have great expectations doesn't mean we shouldn't be awestruck when they are met. Football teams like this one come around once in a lifetime - maybe once in history. Cherish today, and and look forward to the tomorrows just ahead.