- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- In two weeks, perhaps we'll be comparing the Patriots to past teams of the decades like the Packers of the 1960s, the Dolphins and Steelers of the '70s, the 49ers of the '80s, and the Cowboys of the '90s. Regardless of Super Bowl XXXIX's outcome, with the way the Patriots have won these last two playoff games, after 14 regular-season wins, they already deserve inclusion in the discussion of recent history's great single-season teams.
Should they keep this up -- and, considering the inferiority of the NFC coupled with what we've seen from New England the past two Sundays, there is little reason to believe they won't against Philadelphia -- we're talking '85 Bears, '86 Giants, '94 Niners here.
A week ago in the divisional round New England held Peyton Manning, who had enjoyed, statistically, only the best seasons ever by a quarterback, and the Colts' prolific offense without a touchdown in a 20-3 conquest at Gillette Stadium. Yet, somehow, the Patriots managed to be even more impressive a week later in completely dominating the AFC's first 15-1 team and only the fourth in the 26 years since the league went to a 16-game schedule. On the road.
Don't believe Patriots 41, Steelers 27. The score was 24-3, New England, at halftime before Pittsburgh performed cosmetic surgery in the second half. The intrigue of what was supposed to be a heavyweight fight between the league's two best teams lasted about as long as a Mike Tyson bout, circa late '80s, which is to say it was over early. Pittsburgh tried to get up off the canvas a couple of times in the second half, but the champs just kept putting them back on their butts.
The Steelers had a legitimate "but for" afterward: three first-half turnovers, the third of which was a Ben Roethlisberger interception Rodney Harrison returned 87 yards for a touchdown, which did an even better job of eliminating the Steelers' running game than the Patriots' front seven, which is saying something. But even with all the Steelers' miscues, there was no confusing who was the better team at Heinz Field Sunday.
And considering the level of competition, this has to be, so far, one of the best playoff runs we've seen in a while. At the very least, it trumps what New England did last year, when they defeated the league's co-MVPs, Manning and Tennessee's Steve McNair, for a second time each in the postseason, or what it did three years ago, pulling off back-to-back upsets over the heavily-favored Steelers and Rams.
Can the Eagles, clearly the class of the NFC and early Super Bowl underdogs, beat the Patriots? How 'bout we start with, can they at least give them a game? Two of the top teams from the supposed better conference certainly didn't. Plenty of people may have predicted Patriots wins the past two games. Few, if any, expected a pair of annihilations.
"You tell me they were going to score 41 points on us, I'd have probably lost my house and everything I own if you'd have told me that before the game," Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter said.
Coach Bill Belichick expressed to his players his confidence in them before the game, and the Patriots did not disappoint their leader. Pittsburgh had the league's strongest defense during the regular season. Leave it to New England to find and exploit a weakness. Tom Brady attacked the "zone" in the Steelers' zone blitz and hit Deion Branch, the other notable absentee from the first meeting between these teams, for completions of 60 (a first-quarter touchdown to make it 10-0) and 45 yards (in the second to set up New England's second TD) deep down the middle. When Harrison stepped in front of a Roethlisberger pass intended for Jerame Tuman in the right flat and took it back for a score in the second, the rout was on.
This run the Patriots are on truly is remarkable. They've won their last eight postseason games, one off the league mark established by the Packers from 1961-67. Including postseason, they're 33-4 the last two years. It's always difficult comparing teams from different eras. The game is different. In this case, the Patriots are dominating the salary-cap era, when it is supposed to be harder to maintain a perennial championship contender. On the other hand, one can argue that the competition was better back when the talent pool wasn't as diluted.
But doing what they've done to the best challengers the AFC (and in the case of Pittsburgh, perhaps the league) has to offer is a historic accomplishment, period, regardless of the circumstances surrounding this or that period of history.
The Colts and Steelers couldn't have been that overrated, could they? It's probably just that the Patriots are that good. So good, in fact, that they have the rare ability to "turn it on," as they say. One player said New England's Wednesday and Thursday practices were "terrible. We were missing blocks, dropping balls, missing reads."
They didn't miss much Sunday.
"When our backs are against the wall, it's a gutsy group of guys, and we seem to rise to the occasion," Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson said. "Odds were against us tonight. Psychologically, they had a huge advantage from the first game (Steelers, 34-20). It was at their house, too. We're able to overcome so many things mentally. This team has for several years."
"When we click, it looks pretty good out there," said special teams captain Larry Izzo. "And the last two weeks we've clicked and put together some games we've been wanting to put together for an entire season. Against good teams that's what you have to do."
There is still more to be done. A win over Philadelphia Feb. 6 in Jacksonville would make the Patriots the second franchise to win three Super Bowls in four years. An impressive win over the Eagles would guarantee the 2004 Patriots' place among the greatest single-season teams of all time. And we thought winning 15 straight to end last year was something.
"I think everybody would be lying if they said that that (three Super Bowls in four years) wasn't in the back of their heads at some point," Izzo said. "But we know that that doesn't really mean anything until after the game's played and people will say what they will say. Our job is to play football and win games. We've got one more to go. After that, we'll let that take care of itself."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
A Patriots win in Super Bowl XXXIX would cement this as one of the best seasons in NFL history.