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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

NFL’s best square off in Pittsburgh

Don Pierson Chicago Tribune

PITTSBURGH — Last week was supposed to be the “real” Super Bowl, until the defending champion New England Patriots made the popular Indianapolis Colts look like just another inept NFC pretender.

Now Sunday’s AFC championship between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Patriots is even more compelling, combining more dramatic elements than any potential Super Bowl matchup can promise even if the next two weeks of super hype surely will test the theory.

The records show the 16-1 Steelers and 15-2 Patriots are the two best teams. The AFC is the superior conference most years and this year by far. So, with apologies to NFC participants Philadelphia and Atlanta, this is the game of the year.

Never before has a 16-1 team played a defending NFL champion in a conference title game or Super Bowl. Never before has a rookie quarterback compiled an undefeated record of 14-0. The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger is trying to become the first to get his team into a Super Bowl. But never before has a quarterback won his first seven playoff games, including two Super Bowls, like New England’s remarkable Tom Brady.

Never before has a 16-1 team playing at home entered a game as the underdog, and against a team it already has beaten by two touchdowns in the regular season. But rarely has a team earned more respect than the Patriots, winners of two of the last three Super Bowls.

“We are playing the best team in football,” Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said of the Patriots.

“They’re the best team in the league,” New England coach Bill Belichick said of the Steelers.

“They are the defending champs. They’re the football team that, until somebody beats them, they are on top. They should be favored,” Cowher said.

“They have the best record. They beat us. They deserve the No. 1 seed,” Belichick said.

Top seeds have been underdogs at home before, but not a top seed with a 15-1 regular-season record. The Steelers follow only the 1984 49ers, 1985 Bears, and 1998 Vikings at 15-1. All were playoff favorites throughout, although the Vikings lost the NFC title game to Atlanta.

The Steelers and Patriots both boast powerful running games and solid defenses and special teams, but this game revolves around Roethlisberger.

Can the kid rebound from a shaky two-interception performance against the Jets last week? The Steelers like to think they are balanced enough to take pressure off the rookie, but against two-time Super Bowl MVP Brady and a defense that befuddled Peyton Manning, Roethlisberger knows he can’t hand off and hide.

“If they can slow down that offense who knows what they can do to ours?” Roethlisberger admitted.

The Steelers beat the Patriots 34-20 on Oct. 31 in Heinz Field, with plenty of help from four Patriot turnovers plus the absence of injured running back Corey Dillon. The Steelers outrushed the Patriots 221 yards to 5, with Duce Staley getting 125 and Jerome Bettis 65. It snapped the Patriots’ record 21-game winning streak.

Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel makes no secret of how they want to challenge Roethlisberger this time.

“I think you just have to put the game into his hands, and we weren’t able to do that the last time,” Vrabel said.

In his last four starts, Roethlisberger has thrown four touchdown passes and seven interceptions. In his first 10 starts, he threw 12 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

“You can’t afford to feel like a rookie because if I go out there and play like a rookie like I did Saturday, you lose the game,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s going to take our ‘A’ game, the best game we’ve ever played to beat these guys. We’re the underdog at home. That’s something that not a lot of teams are probably used to.”

Doubts could be exactly what the Steelers desire, but when it comes to humility, the Patriots remain world champs.

“My first year as a player, my rookie year, there was no way I could have done what he did,” Brady said. “I was awful. I couldn’t do anything.”

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