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Patriots hand Steelers serving of humble pie

Alex Marvez South Florida Sun-Sentinel

PITTSBURGH – They made hamburger out of Ben Roethlisberger, tore holes in the Steel Curtain defense and crushed a team that had lost only one game in the 2004 regular season.

And because of it, the New England Patriots stand on the cusp of establishing themselves as one of the great dynasties in NFL history.

The Patriots are heading to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville as defending champions to play Philadelphia after a 41-27 victory over Pittsburgh in Sunday’s AFC Championship game at frigid Heinz Field.

“This was tough but gratifying,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “This team has worked hard. I’m happy they have this kind of achievement to show for it.”

The Dallas Cowboys (1992, 1993 and 1995) are the only franchise to win three Super Bowls in the span of four seasons. But that standing is in jeopardy with the way the Patriots (16-2) dispatched Pittsburgh in avenging a 34-20 loss to the Steelers earlier this season.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw two first-half touchdown passes and strong safety Rodney Harrison returned one of Roethlisberger’s three interceptions 87 yards for a touchdown to stake New England to a 21-point lead. Even when Pittsburgh’s offense generated some second-half momentum, New England was able to keep pace thanks to a 25-yard Corey Dillon touchdown run and Brady’s clutch third-down passing.

“We had opportunities, but we didn’t take advantage of them,” Steelers tailback Jerome Bettis said.

The Steelers (16-2) now have lost four of the past five AFC Championship games they have hosted, including a 24-17 loss to New England in the 2001 season. The 2004 Patriots had scored 24 points in Sunday’s game before the two-minute warning of the first half after Harrison’s interception return.

After the hard-hitting safety zipped in front of tight end Jerame Tuman to snare the pass, the only thing keeping Harrison from the end zone was Roethlisberger. Linebacker Mike Vrabel made sure that obstacle was eliminated by pancaking Roethlisberger.

“That was probably a 10-point swing,” Belichick said. “Rodney has made big plays for us all year. He stepped up and made another one.”

Roethlisberger, who had won all 14 of his previous starts in an unprecedented rookie season, finished 14 of 24 passing for 226 yards.

“Ben Roethlisberger – he’s the best,” New England’s Vince Wilfork sarcastically told fellow defensive tackle Keith Traylor while entering the Patriots’ locker room.

The Patriots scored their first 10 points following Pittsburgh turnovers. On his first attempt, Roethlisberger had a pass thrown well behind wide receiver Antwaan Randle El intercepted by safety Eugene Wilson. The Patriots parlayed that into a 48-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal.

The Steelers reached New England’s 38-yard line on their next possession. But Vrabel recovered a Jerome Bettis fumble after the tailback was stood up and stripped at the line of scrimmage on a fourth-and-1 carry.

The Steelers quickly paid for not punting. With strong safety Troy Polamalu jumping another route, wide receiver Deion Branch ran past cornerback Deshea Townsend to catch a 60-yard TD pass for New England’s longest score of the season.

A 19-yard pass from Roethlisberger to wide receiver Hines Ward helped set up a 43-yard field goal by Jeff Reed with 1:22 left in the first quarter. But it didn’t take long for Brady to exploit Pittsburgh’s secondary again with a 45-yard toss to Branch and a 9-yard screen pass to David Givens, who took advantage of cornerback Willie Williams’ slip to score. Brady finished 14-of-21 passing for 207 yards in a turnover-free performance.

The Steelers battled back early in the second half after a 5-yard Bettis touchdown run and what was an apparent Givens fumble. But after an instant replay showed Givens’ knee had touched the ground before the fumble, Dillon ripped off a 25-yard touchdown run to extend New England’s advantage to 31-10.

The Steelers didn’t immediately fold. A 30-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward and a 20-yard Reed field goal cut New England’s lead to 11 points with 13:29 remaining.

But the decision to settle for the Reed field goal rather than not go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the Patriots’ 2 may have ultimately proven Pittsburgh’s undoing. The Patriots answered Reed’s score with a drive that consumed almost 5 1/2 minutes and ended with a 31-yard Vinatieri field goal.

Wilson then intercepted another overthrown Roethlsisberger pass on Pittsburgh’s next possession to secure the win.

Notes

New England kicker Adam Vinatieri added to his reputation for great postseason play by hitting a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter. It tied his longest kick in playoff history. On Friday, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis paid Vinatieri a huge compliment, essentially saying Vinatieri is the best clutch kicker in the game… . Despite New England coach Bill Belichick saying Friday that defensive lineman Richard Seymour might play in “certain situations,” Seymour was among the inactives Sunday.

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