Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Throwback column: Jan. 27, 2002

Can someone tell me what's gotten into the Pittsburgh Steelers this week? They've been . . . well, gracious. Classy. Respectful of the Patriots. Un-Steeler-like, really.

Where's the trash talk? Where are the pre-game proclamations of greatness? Where are the Steelers we have come to loathe?

Why so shy now, Plaxico? Does Hines Ward have laryngitis? Did Joey Porter get shot in the a$$ again, thereby rendering him a mute?

It's all so confusing. We thought the Steelers would be a their brash best - or worst, I suppose - especially after they actually backed up their big words in their impressive 34-20 victory over the Patriots on Halloween.

Instead, Ward spends the week leading up this AFC Championship showdown praising his mini-me, Pats receiver David Givens, while rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger chats up the press conference with a blandly affable poise that many veterans never quite master. Suddenly, the Steelers are acting like . . . professionals.

Which makes it really difficult for a Pats fan to work up the proper hatred for the Steelers, an interesting twist of irony considering how easy they used to make it.

So as a public service to you, this site's lone reader, I offer you a reminder of the Steelers of a not-so-distant yesteryear, the Steelers who talked like a champ and fought like a tomato can. I've posted two columns from my days at the "Concord Monitor" - one from before the 2002 AFC Championship Game, in which the Pats beat the Steelers 24-17, and one from before the next season's opener, when the Steelers were still in deep denial about their previous defeat.

Should the Pats beat them Sunday, I suspect we'll hear the same old familiar We-we're-better-We-wuz-jobbed-They-aren't-that-good nonsense again.

I, for one, am looking forward to it.

But for now, we look back . . .

Jan 27, 2002 - Among all the silly proclamations spewed by professional athletes, "We ain't getting no respect" is only slightly less ridiculous than "It's not about the money" and "I have no idea how that got in my glove compartment, officer."

The whole no-respect cliché is little more than an artificial way for players to psyche themselves up for battle.

Take the Baltimore Ravens, who last season milked the us-against-the-world thing all the way to a Super Bowl victory. Apparently, someone forgot to tell them they were actually favored in the game.

But your New England Patriots, well, they have a case. When they complain about a lack of respect, they have the proof to justify it.

Consider this: The goodfellas in Las Vegas have made the Patriots a 9½-point underdog against the Pittsburgh Steelers in today's AFC Championship game.

The Steelers were exactly 9½-point favorites one other time this year - in Week 14, against the Detroit Lions.

The Lions were 1-12 at the time.

That, dear readers, is the very definition of disrespect. It's no wonder Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy's ears turned to smokestacks Friday when he was asked if he thought the Patriots were, to paraphrase "lucky, a team of destiny, happy to be here."

Milloy was ticked because he knows what this whole region knows. The second-seeded Patriots belong in this game as much as the top-seeded Steelers. They have earned the right.

Yet they are perceived as lucky, kissed by destiny. That's partially because of the fortunate events of last Saturday night, and partially because there are so few marquee names on their roster.

Lucky? That's the conclusion of the ill-informed. The know-it-all nitwits who dismiss these Patriots haven't paid close enough attention to the goings-on in Foxboro this season, because if they did they'd realize this:

It's not about luck. It's about pluck.

No, the Patriots are not a great team, not in the Original Steel Curtain/How 'Bout them Cowboys/Montana-to-Rice sense. But they are a great team.

They have won via Antowain Smith's legs and Tom Brady's arm and Troy Brown's determination. They have won thanks to a flexible, bend-but-don't-break defense and an innovative coaching staff.

Yes, they have even won due to the correct interpretation of stupid rule.

Notice a theme here? To borrow a mantra from last week's victim, the Patriots just win, baby.

Their last loss was to the mighty St. Louis Rams, way back on Nov. 18. Since then, they have won seven consecutive games.

Today, it'll become eight. Of this I am convinced, and for more reasons than Terry Glenn has problems.

I'll be the first to admit I'm no bleary-eyed Ron Jaworski, obsessively breaking down film in the dungeon of the NFL Films offices. But I have spent enough Sunday afternoons on the couch to get a pretty good inkling of how the game will play out in the Patriots' favor. And I'm feeling damn good about today.

I think offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will come up with one of his typically inventive game plans, something that will turn the Steelers' hell-bent "Blitzburgh" defense against them. (Look for J.R. Redmond, a supreme pass blocker, to be a huge factor catching dinky passes out of the backfield.)

I think Brady will exploit Pittsburgh's iffy cornerbacks, Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington, with at least one long pass. (Although a bomb to Glenn on the first play of the game - a la Pats-Steelers '96 - appears to be out of the question.)

I think the rejuvenated Ty Law and one-time would-be press corner Tebucky Jones will shut down 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress. (Law, all 5-foot-11 of him, won his share of battles against 6-4 Keyshawn Johnson, and Plexiglass is no Keyshawn. It's his second year, and the dude hasn't even written a book yet.)

I think Jerome Bettis will play for the first time in seven weeks, and I think his rusty wheels will benefit the Patriots, who have traditionally slowed him. (I do fear Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, a moose who signed with the Patriots as a restricted free agent this offseason before the Steelers wisely matched the offer.)

I think the Patriots will hang close in the first half, then the coaching staff will make their usual shrewd halftime adjustments.

The victor will be determined when Adam Vinatieri goes toe-to-toe with his Steelers counterpart, Kris Brown, in the game's final moments. (Vinatieri proved last week he's capable of putting the pigskin through the uprights in Antarctica. Brown missed an astonishing 14 field goals this season and is known as "Miss" around the Steel City. Advantage, Patriots.)

But the Patriots' greatest advantage today? The man standing on their sideline, Bill Belichick. How wonderful it is that we can have complete confidence that our team's coach will come up with some devious, havoc-wreaking game plan.

I can't wait to see how he derails the Kordell Stewart Express. The Artist Formerly Known As Slash succeeds - thrives, even - because offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey severely limits what he asks him to do. Belichick, on the other hand, is a genius at making opposing quarterbacks play to their weaknesses.

It'll be a chess match, to be sure. And not to be too cruel, but Belichick matching wits with Stewart is the equivalent of Gary Kasparov dueling brains with Roger Clemens.

Stewart is this year's Trent Dilfer. No player in the NFL benefits more from the talent around him, and make no mistake, these Steelers are an excellent football team. They are disciplined and fierce and proud and relentless. In many ways, they mirror the Patriots.

What they are not is invincible.

The Steelers are getting way too much .  .  . well, respect, particularly after dismantling the Ravens a week ago. This year's Ravens were a hazy photocopy of their Super Bowl edition. Ray Lewis might kill me for saying this - seriously, he might - but his team quit. Elvis Grbac, the new millennium's Tony Eason, looked ready to burrow a hole and bury himself in the end zone.

After the emotional high of their triumphant humiliation of a most despised rival, there is serious letdown potential for the Steelers today. They seem to believe this is anti-climactic, that a trip to New Orleans is a certainty. They seem to forget that they are 1-2 in AFC title games in the Bill Cowher era, or that three of the last four home teams have lost this game.

Smirks on their faces, they pay lip-service to their opponent, all the while casting an eye toward the Big Easy.

They say they respect the Patriots.

By 4 p.m. today, they will mean it.

(This column was originally published by the Concord Monitor.)