Sunday, January 23, 2005

First and 10: Pats-Steelers preview

My prediction? Pain!

They've said all the right things all week, but anyone who knows their history knows the truth:

Today's combatants simply cannot stand each other. In fact, you might call it hate.

Part of the reason is that they are so much alike: They are successful, proud - arrogant, even - stubborn, and remarkably talented. They each think they are the best, and they intend to prove it.

Which is why we will tune in today. Rivalries such as this make for great television.

I am talking, of course, about Boomer "No, I'm not Phil Simms" Esiason and Dan "Hey, I made it to a Super Bowl" Marino on the pregame show. It's the most heated rivarly in the NFL today . . or on the "NFL Today." Can't wait 'til the hitting begins.

What's that you say? Yes, I suppose the Pats-Steelers game to follow should really be something too.

So as Marino gives Boomer the How-dare-you-drop-that-pass-Mark-Duper-you-idiot glare, it's first and 10, Patriots . . .

1) Steeler fans will claim we're making excuses, but the truth is this: The fates, for the first time in 21 games, were against the Pats during their streak-busting 34-20 loss to Pittsburgh on Halloween.

Consider: Ty Law goes down on the second series, forcing rookie free-agent Randall Gay into an unexpected role as an every-down player. Two plays after Law's injury, Gay is scorched by Plaxico Burress, and the rout is underway. (Note: Once he got his sea legs, Gay has proven to be a fine corner. But he wasn't ready that day.)

Consider: Corey Dillon did not play. The Patriots rushed for five yards. Five. Something tells me one thing has to do with the other.

Consider: Deion Branch did not play, missing the game with a sprained ankle. He may not be the Patriots' most productive receiver, but he is the most talented.

Consider: Right tackle Brandon Gorin was making his debut as a starter. When left tackle Matt Light went down with an ankle injury, Gorin moved to left tackle and guard/full-nelson specialist Steve Neal moved to right tackle. Is it any wonder that assclown Joey Porter made himself a regular visitor to the Patriots backfield that day?

Consider: Bethel Johnson slipped and fell on a pass route, enabling Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend to swipe a Brady pass and take it back for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

Conclusion: The breaks may not all go the Patriots way today. But I'm fairly certain they'll get more than they did on Halloween.

2) My favorite Jerome Bettis move: He attempts to run up the middle, but the defense plugs the hole and he is siphoned outside, where is gang-tackled after a gain of two yards. . . . and then he gets up and does a stupid-ass tippy-toe dance. I think we will see that move a lot today. The Patriots have traditionally stopped The Bus, although no one can stop him when he gets that dance fever. Frankly, Duce Staley scares me much more.

3) You have to give the Patriots the edge at kicker in every game from now until the day Adam Vinatieri's right shoe is bronzed in Canton. But I've been impressed with the Steelers' Jeff Reed, who booted the game-winner against the Jets a week ago and seems to thrive in the windy conditions at Heinz Field. I suspect the Steelers are as confident in him as the Patriots are in their two-time Super Bowl hero. That counts for something.

4) Pittsburgh's defense is legit. Troy Polamalu is the prototype for the modern safety (although I can't imagine Rodney Harrison ever wearing a ponytail), James Farrior is the Steel City's Bruschi, and Joey Porter is the player Rosey Colvin was supposed to be before the hip injury. If there is a weakness, it's that their corners are supposedly vulnerable, but rarely does the offense have enough time to expose them. The Steelers blitz more effectively than any team in the league, and the decisions Brady makes will go a long way to determining the victor in this game. In other words: No blind passes today, Tommy.

5) I give the Patriots the nod today at quarterback, running back, special teams and defensive backfield, and linebacker is a toss-up. But the biggest advantage for the visitors: coaching. Belichick has won his last seven playoff games and just publicly humiliated the alleged greatest offense in NFL history. Bill Cowher is 1-3 in AFC Championship games at home and nearly lost to an underachieving, poorly coached Jets team a week ago. Plus, his chin and that whole spitting thing freaks me out. He's more image than substance.

6) Quick note from today's JV game: While it would have been cool to see the league's most exciting player, Mike Vick, in the Super Bowl, the true New England sports fan is probably happy for the Eagles, who snapped their streak of three consecutive championship game losses with a 27-10 victory over Vick and the Falcons. The Eagles have had their share of hard luck, tough breaks and tragedy through the years, and their fans are our kindred spirits, a more vulgar and sarcastic version of ourselves. It's not hard for us to comprehend the joy they are feeling today.

7) Richard Seymour was listed as questionable on the injury report, and Belichick said on Thursday that the Patriots' All-Pro defensive lineman won't start but could see "situational" action. So does he play or doesn't he? And if he does, what will his role be? There's was some suspicion that Belichick suggested Seymour would play just to give the Steelers something else to think about, but that he'll be inactive again as he was last week. The guess here is that Belichick was being forthright (for once) and that Seymour is on the field during the most crucial situations. Jarvis Green filled in capably against the Colts, but he may be too much of a finesse player to succeed against Pittsburgh's mammoth offensive line. The Patriots need Seymour today. (Note: It's 6:23, and I just found out Seymour is inactive. Crap.)

8) Matchup that scares me the most: Hines Ward against Randall Gay/Asante Samuel. Ward, who has had four straight 1,000-yard seasons, is the receiver David Givens hopes to grow up to be, and his brute-force style should be doubly effective in today's lousy weather. If Roethlisberger can throw it, Ward will catch it.

9) Which brings us to what should be the Steelers' main concern today: the physical and mental well-being of their talented rookie quarterback. I have seen Roethlisberger enough this season to be confident in saying that he is going to be a star in this league for a long time. But he was atrocious last week against the Jets. Atrocious. Even Spergon Wynn was heard mocking him. There are rumors that he has a thumb injury, which would explain his uncharacteristic inaccuracy in that game, and a nagging rib injury is also a concern. Worse, he was pouting openly when things weren't going well. I imagine Belichick was salivating as he saw this, and he'll have a few new tricks to show the kid QB to try and rattle his confidence early. Surely you've heard the most oft-repeated stat of the week: Belichick is 13-0 when facing a quarterback for the second time. If Roethlisberger plays the way he did last week, it'll be 14-0 shortly.

10) Well, since my prediction of a 38-35 Pats victory last Sunday proved so accurate - hey, at least I got the winning team right, which is more than I can say for 90 percent of the national prognosticators - I might as well throw another one out there this week. Pats, 20-13. Vinny boots two field goals, Dillon gets a short TD and Brady connects with Givens on a long one, and Eugene Wilson picks a Roethlisberger pass in the closing moments to seal it.

That said, it'll probably 48-47. Either way, enjoy it. These are the two best teams in the league, and this is how it should be: the best against the best. The winner will be crowned the Super Bowl champion two weeks from now in Jacksonville.