Patriots 41

(14-2, 6-2 away)

Steelers 27

(15-1, 8-0 home)

6:30 PM ET, January 23, 2005


1 2 3 4 T
NE 10 14 7 1041
PIT 3 0 14 1027

Big Ben turns to Gentle Ben in Steelers' loss

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Too much Brady, too much Belichick.

The New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons because they simply overwhelmed Big Ben, stopping him and the Pittsburgh Steelers cold.

Most consecutive playoff wins to start career by starting QB
Player Streak Super Bowl wins during streak
Tom Brady 8* 2
Troy Aikman 7 2
Joe Theismann 6 1
Jim Plunkett 5 1
*Active streak

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were an unbeatable combination again for the Patriots, exposing all of the Steelers' weaknesses to end their 15-game winning streak and win the AFC championship 41-27 on a frigid Sunday night.

Brady gave the inexperienced Ben Roethlisberger a lesson in quarterbacking a championship game, throwing two touchdown passes -- one to Deion Branch that gave New England a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

Belichick upstaged can't-win-the-big-one Steelers coach Bill Cowher, improving to 9-1 as a playoffs coach and matching Vince Lombardi for the best postseason record in NFL playoff history.

"He said he had the most confidence in this team. I think that was huge for us to hear from our leader, from our coach," Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson said. "I don't think I've ever heard him say that. ... He just has it, whatever it is. He just finds a way."

Now, the defending champions will play the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla. New England was installed as an early 6-to-6-point favorite.

The Eagles ended their three-game losing streak in the NFC championship game by beating Atlanta 27-10 earlier Sunday.

One more Super Bowl victory -- and it would be New England's third since the 2001 season -- and they might find some hardware to put Belichick's name on. His players said their coach's role in a commanding victory over a streaking team that had manhandled the Patriots earlier can't be overstated.

"It's very flattering to be mentioned in the same breath with Vince Lombardi," Belichick said. "That's why the trophy has his name on it."

Brady put his name on a big game again. He improved to 8-0 as a postseason quarterback, bettering Troy Aikman's 7-0 record at the start of his playoffs career.

This game was a near-replay of Pittsburgh's breakthrough 34-20 win Oct. 31 that ended New England's record 21-game winning streak. Again, an under-pressure quarterback kept making mistakes as a team seized a 24-3 lead in the first half -- only this time it was the rookie, not the cool-as-can-be Brady doing so.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, they couldn't throw a red flag from the sidelines to overturn this performance, which saw Roethlisberger throw three costly interceptions in his first loss in 15 NFL starts. He had won 27 straight games dating to his final season at Miami of Ohio.

"It wasn't a great game on my part, but I learned an awful lot this season," said Roethlisberger, who failed to become the first rookie QB to lead his team to the Super Bowl. "We had a great season, but there are a lot of people -- some in that locker room -- that now think" it's a disappointment.

Staying away from turnovers is "important when you play the really tough teams," Brady said.

"It's important to protect the ball and that's what we did," he said.

Brady was 14-of-21 for 207 yards and no interceptions to Roethlisberger's 14-of-24 for 226 yards and two scores.

For the Steelers, it was their fourth loss in five AFC championship games at home since 1995 under Cowher and, at least psychologically, the worst. With a franchise-record winning streak that brought back memories of their four-time Super Bowl champions of the 1970s and a seemingly can't-be-beaten rookie who had energized his teammates and his city, they were certain they had what it took to get back to the Super Bowl for only the second time in 25 years.

Instead, it had that same familiar look as those home-field losses in the AFC title games during the 1994, 1997 and 2001 seasons, the last one also to the Patriots as a 10-point favorite.

So much for that all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl, too, in what would have been a therapeutic matchup for a state that, before Sunday, had seen its two teams lose six of seven conference championship games in the last 11 seasons.

The Steelers publicly toed the Cowher-dictated corporate line, saying they understood New England's role as a 3-point favorite despite their 15-game winning streak and NFL-best 16-1 record. Privately, they were motivated by the perceived slight and linebacker Joey Porter promised they wouldn't flop in a title game again.

Then, they went out and flopped, generating boos from their normally adoring crowd even before the Patriots led 24-3 by halftime. Only an hour earlier, many of those same fans deliriously twirled Terrible Towels during a feverish and colorful pregame display that warmed up Heinz Field on an 11-degree night -- making it the second coldest home game in Steelers history.

New England didn't have an injured Corey Dillon during that Halloween loss in Pittsburgh, and the 1,635-yard rusher was supposed to make a big difference in the rematch, but he had a below-average 73 yards. Instead it was Branch, also injured and out of the first game, who kept making big plays with his touchdown catch, 23-yard touchdown run and 45-yard reception that set up David Givens' 9-yard TD catch that made it 17-3.

Branch got behind cornerback Deshea Townsend for his 60-yard scoring pass on the play after Jerome "The Bus" Bettis fumbled on a fourth-and-1 at the Patriots' 39. It was Bettis' second fumble in 10 carries over two games after he went more than a season without fumbling.

Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal -- matching the longest in 4-year-old Heinz Field -- following Roethlisberger's interception on his first pass of the game, on Pittsburgh's opening drive.

"He struggled, had a bad game and I'm sure he would be the first to tell you that," said Bettis, who failed to gain 100 yards for the first time in eight starts this season.

Bettis is hinting he may retire as the NFL's No. 5 career rusher.

The Steelers wanted to pound big backs Bettis and Duce Staley like they did in outrushing New England 221-5 in the earlier game. Instead, New England's early leads forced them to do exactly what they didn't want: ask Roethlisberger to win it for them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Roethlisberger threw an interception that Rodney Harrison returned 87 yards for a TD that put New England up 24-3, and Pittsburgh's rushing edge was only 163-126 this time.

"The strength of their team is the running game. Any time you can take that away and make it a one-dimensional team, that's your goal," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said.

That wasn't the worst of it in a half that exposed all the flaws Pittsburgh adeptly covered up all season: Roethlisberger's lack of big-game experience and a suspect secondary.

Last week, Roethlisberger threw two interceptions, one for a score, in a great-escape 20-17 overtime win against the Jets. When he made the same kind of mistakes against a better team, the results were predictable.

"He had happy feet and wants to run to throw and sometimes he just lobs it up," Harrison said. "We knew we could make some plays on the ball against him."

Belichick's Patriots are 14-0 since 2001 when facing the same starting quarterback for the second time in a season.

"We saw a lot of things from them," Roethlisberger said. "They did a little bit of everything. They threw the book at us."

Pittsburgh tried to get back in it in the second half on Bettis' touchdown run and Roethlisberger's TD pass to Hines Ward, but a replay reversal led to Dillon's 25-yard TD run and a 31-10 New England lead.

Pittsburgh could have gotten to within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but was turned aside on three straight plays after having first-and-goal at the 5 and settled for Jeff Reed's second field goal.

Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press


Scoring Summary

Drive info: 1 plays, 60 yds, 0:00
Drive info: 1 plays, 81 yds, 0:00
neTD7:49Corey Dillon, 25 yd run
Drive info: 1 plays, 75 yds, 0:00
Drive info: 1 plays, 60 yds, 0:00
Drive info: 1 plays, 81 yds, 0:00
Drive info: 1 plays, 75 yds, 0:00
neFG11:24Adam Vinatieri 10 yd Field Goal
Drive info: 5 plays, 18 yds, 2:26
pitFG1:26Jeff Reed 10 yd Field Goal
Drive info: 5 plays, 23 yds, 2:06
Drive info: 5 plays, 70 yds, 2:40
pitTD11:05Jerome Bettis, 5 yd run
Drive info: 5 plays, 56 yds, 2:28
Drive info: 5 plays, 70 yds, 2:40
Drive info: 5 plays, 56 yds, 2:28
pitFG13:45Jeff Reed 10 yd Field Goal
Drive info: 6 plays, 53 yds, 1:58
Drive info: 6 plays, 61 yds, 1:21
Drive info: 6 plays, 61 yds, 1:21
Drive info: 10 plays, 60 yds, 4:35
neFG8:06Adam Vinatieri 10 yd Field Goal
Drive info: 10 plays, 49 yds, 5:14
Drive info: 10 plays, 60 yds, 4:35
neTD2:35Deion Branch, 23 yd run
Drive info: 10 plays, 56 yds, 4:54
Drive info: 10 plays, 56 yds, 4:54