Patriots' second-quarter blitz stuns Steelers
By BOB LABRIOLA
It was going to be the defending Super Bowl champions vs. the only 15-1 AFC team in history; Tom Brady vs. the league's reigning No. 1 defense; diabolical defensive genius Bill Belichick vs. record-breaking rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And for so many of them from both locker rooms, it was going to be a rematch of the 2001 AFC Championship Game.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots got together at Heinz Field for the 2004 AFC Championship Game and a spot in Super Bowl XXXIX, it was a clash of the year's NFL titans. During that regular season, the Steelers and the Patriots were a combined 29-3, and based on what each had done to some of the other top competition around the league, this game would pit the two best teams in the NFL.
For the Steelers, the season had turned on the play of their rookie quarterback. A team coming off a 6-10 record, a team that had been seen as a potential division contender when the 2004 season opened, had managed to put together a 14-game winning streak. A significant factor in this run was Ben Roethlisberger, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to win his first 13 starts and did it while shattering Dan Marino's rookie records.
In head-to-head matchups during the regular season, Roethlisberger had outplayed Brady, Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Jeff Garcia and Eli Manning, and come the postseason the praise was coming from everywhere.
"The key for Roethlisberger, or any quarterback, is to have the ability to make the difference between winning and losing, and winning championships," said Terry Bradshaw. "It looks like Roethlisberger may be that guy. I'm very excited about the fact that it looks like the Steelers have someone they can depend on to lead the team for the next 14 years."
In his first year, Roethlisberger's completion percentage was 66.4 and his passer rating was 98.1; Marino's records had been a 58.6 completion percentage and a passer rating of 96.0
"The thing that's most impressive about Ben is his awareness in the pocket, his presence, and his ability to move inside the pocket and still make throws down the field," said Marino. "You can't teach that; that's kind of instinct. That's something he has going for him that a lot of guys today don't have. The other thing that's impressive is that he's not turning the ball over. That's the biggest thing, as far as young quarterbacks are concerned, that you have to deal with and worry about."
As the regular season wore on, however, Roethlisberger's interception total grew. He finished the regular season with only 11 interceptions, but five of those came in his final three starts, and then he had thrown two more in the AFC Divisional Playoff win over the New York Jets.
But still, the Steelers were favored to win this AFC Championship Game, with much of that sentiment stemming from the ease with which the Steelers had handled New England during the regular season. In an Oct. 31 game at Heinz Field, the Steelers had ended the Patriots' 21-game winning streak in a dominating fashion.
Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis combined for 190 yards rushing; Plaxico Burress caught two touchdown passes; Roethlisberger finished the day with a passer rating of 126.8; and the defense sacked Brady four times and intercepted him twice – one of which was returned for a touchdown by Deshea Townsend – on the way to a plus-four turnover ratio.
Patriots running back Corey Dillon had been injured and missed the regular season game, and during that afternoon New England also had lost cornerback Ty Law and left tackle Matt Light. Dillon would play in this game, but the Steelers historically had been able to contain a quality running back in a big game; Light was back, but Law's injury had been season-ending.
ESPN's Merril Hoge predicted a winning score in the low 20s, and he believed that for the Patriots to win their offense would have to be able to attack the Steelers defense deep down the field and hit some big plays. "Ultimately, what you have to do to the Steelers is find a way to get over the top on them, and by that I mean over the linebackers and deep into the secondary," said Hoge. "But to accomplish that, the quarterback is going to need time."
The day of the game brought a temperature of 11-degrees with a wind chill of minus-1, and Roethlisberger started out as cold as the temperature. A playoff game at Heinz Field always presents an electric atmosphere for the home team throughout the entire build-up to the opening kickoff. Then, it crescendos from there, which can serve to uplift the home team to a level where the visitor is left struggling to weather the emotional tidal wave. But that only happens if the home team is able to cooperate and not make critical, emotionally-draining mistakes early in the game.
The Steelers received the opening kickoff and on the first third-down situation of the game, Roethlisberger's pass for Antwaan Randle El was intercepted by safety Eugene Wilson. A 14-yard reverse to wide receiver Deion Branch on the first play was enough to get the Patriots into field goal range, and when the Steelers defense stiffened that's what New England managed on the 48-yard kick by Adam Vinatieri.
Down 3-0, Roethlisberger converted his next third down with a 16-yard pass to Burress, but after three straight running plays the Steelers faced a fourth-and-1 from the Patriots 39-yard line. Coach Bill Cowher left his offense on the field, but when Jerame Tuman lined up on the wrong side of the formation as a wing and then went in motion, the play looked awful and Bettis was dumped for a 1-yard loss. The play officially was scored as a fumble recovered by Mike Vrabel, but that happened at the spot where Bettis had been stoned by linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.
"The most important thing was we set the tone early," said veteran Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson. "They're a tough, physical football team, and if you don't stand up to them you're going to get pushed around and bullied around. That fourth down play, that was a huge play for our own psyche and our own state of mind. I felt like we sent a message when we stopped that run."
On the next play, Brady sent Branch on a deep post and when free safety Chris Hope didn't get deep enough to help Townsend, the Patriots had a 60-yard touchdown. The first quarter was barely half over, and the Steelers were down, 10-0. That's no way to feed off the energy of the home crowd.
"Part of going downtown were things that we saw on film that we thought we could take advantage of," said Patriots receiver Troy Brown. "We caught them in certain coverages, and we knew we could take advantage of it."
In hindsight, based on the Patriots being punished by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for what has become known as Spygate, Brown's reference to seeing things on film takes on a different meaning today than it did then.
The Steelers managed a field goal late in the first quarter, but midway through the second, Brady hit another big play by attacking deep down the field. Both had come on first down, both had gone to Branch down the middle. This second one was good for 45 yards to the Steelers 14-yard line, and Brady finished things off two plays later with a 9-yard throw to wide receiver David Givens: 17-3.
Remember what Marino had said about Roethlisberger's play as a rookie being so special? "The other thing that's impressive is that he's not turning the ball over," said Marino. "That's the biggest thing, as far as young quarterbacks are concerned, that you have to deal with and worry about."
In the playoffs, especially in those games that end with a trophy presentation, a quarterback cannot be careless with the ball. Roethlisberger already had thrown one interception when the Steelers lined up over the ball on their own 23-yard line with seven minutes left in the first half. They desperately needed to cut into New England's two-touchdown lead.
Roethlisberger completed an 8-yard pass to Tuman on second-and-6, and then he hooked up with Hines Ward for 28 to put the ball on the Patriots 37-yard line. On third-and-5, Roethlisberger converted with a run to the Patriots 23-yard line. After a 4-yard run by Staley, the next play was to be something the Steelers had practiced all week, and executed perfectly each time.
"All week, it was funny, I have been reading that safety jumping the tight end, and (I was) throwing over the top to Hines," said Roethlisberger, "and for some reason I was thinking to just move the ball down the field instead of taking the shot."
Ward was open for the touchdown that would have brought the Steelers to 17-10 with 2:31 left in the half, but Roethlisberger's thought to "just move the ball down the field" induced a throw to Tuman in the flat. As expected, the Patriots safety – in this case Rodney Harrison – jumped the route, intercepted the pass and returned it 87 yards for a touchdown. There still was 2:31 left in the first half, but now the Patriots were leading, 24-3.
"It was extremely frustrating," said Roethlisberger. "Like I said, I saw Rodney driving on it but I thought I could sneak it into Jerame. But obviously, I made a bad choice, a bad decision."
There still was a half to play for the AFC Championship, but this game essentially was over. The Patriots may have been underdogs when it began, but they also were as 14-2 team that had smothered Peyton Manning and the Colts in their Divisional Playoff game. They were too good to blow a 21-point lead in a contest of this significance, especially not when their quarterback was playing well.
On the first series of the second half, Joey Porter sacked Brady to force the Patriots to punt from deep in their own territory. In between a couple of runs by Bettis, Roethlisberger completed passes of 12 and 34 yards to Randle El, and then Bettis burst through the left side for 5 yards and the touchdown that brought the Steelers back to 24-10.
The Patriots got one first down on the ensuing possession, but then a sack by linebacker Clark Haggans set up a third-and-17 from the New England 37-yard line. On an attempted screen pass, cornerback Ike Taylor came on a blitz and put pressure on Brady, whose pass to running back Kevin Faulk never had a chance. But Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith was flagged for holding while trying to defend the screen pass, and the Patriots ended up with a drive-sustaining first down.
In response to their good fortune, the Patriots took to the attack. Brady completed an 18-yard pass to Givens, but as the play was concluding Steelers cornerback Willie Williams came out with the football and Haggans was flagged for unnecessary roughness. After a challenge by Belichick, the referee awarded the ball to the Patriots at the spot of the catch and then added 15 yards for the penalty on Haggans. On the next play, Dillon took a straight handoff and sprinted 25 yards for the touchdown and a 31-10 bulge for New England.
"It was a big penalty," said Coach Bill Cowher. "It was a third-and-15, and it was a screen pass. It was a very severe penalty at the time. When you put yourself in those situations, you have no margin for error. Then they hit another pass play, and then the run into the corner (of the end zone). It seemed like every chance we had to get back (in the game), we could not get a stop on defense. If you couple that with the turnovers, the score was what it was."
In the fourth quarter, Cowher would come under fire for his decision to settle for a field goal from the 2-yard line, and a touchdown pass to Burress with 56 seconds left made the final, 41-27, but the Patriots always maintained control of the game. In their two possessions in the fourth quarter, the Patriots scored 10 points; and while Roethlisberger did throw that touchdown pass to Burress, he also had thrown another interception earlier in the fourth quarter.
"Going into the game, I really felt like it was our time to win," said Porter. "I wish I had the answers for you, but I really don't. That's the first time this season I can say we were out-played by a team. It just happened at the wrong time."
Vinatieri 48 FG
Branch 60 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick)
Reed 43 FG
Givens 9 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick)
Harrison 87 interception return (Vinatieri kick)
Bettis 5 run (Reed kick)
Dillon 25 run (Vinatieri kick)
Ward 30 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Vinatieri 31 FG
Branch 23 run (Vinatieri kick)
Burress 7 pass from Roethlisberger (Reed kick)
Total Net Yds