Patriots rock Steelers for AFC title
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers and New England Patriots proved why a rookie quarterback has never started in a Super Bowl.
Coach Bill Cowher tried to ride Ben Roethlisberger from Heinz Field to Jacksonville, Fla., for Super Bowl XXXIX, but the kid not yet 23 years old threw two of his three interceptions in the first half of the AFC Championship Game Sunday night, and the Patriots left town with a 41-27 victory.
"I feel like I let a lot of people down," Roethlisberger said.
But the Steelers' secondary was equally at fault. Roethlisberger, a rookie playing in his second postseason game, was mismatched against Patriots two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Tom Brady, who torched the NFL's top-ranked defense. Brady completed 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.5.
Coach Bill Cowher fingered the defense for some of his team's overall failure. The Steelers allowed 322 total yards, 126 on the ground (73 by running back Corey Dillon).
"It seems like every time we had a chance to get back in the game," Cowher said, "we couldn't make a stop."
"It wasn't all on Ben," Pro Bowl wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We could have run the ball better, and the receivers could have made more plays for Ben."
The Steelers and Cowher suffered their fourth home loss in an AFC Championship Game in five tries. Two of the losses were at Three Rivers Stadium and the past two were to the Patriots at Heinz Field, including Sunday's game witnessed by a Steelers record crowd of 65,242.
"That's happened to me twice, seeing the Patriots celebrating on (our) field," Ward said. "It's just a sick feeling. I don't ever want to feel like that again."
Roethlisberger's career-high three interceptions matched the number thrown by former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart in title-game losses to the Denver Broncos in 1998 and Patriots in 2002. The loss was Roethlisberger's first of the season, and it stretched Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's postseason winning streak to eight.
Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, torched the Steelers secondary that never found a way to slow him down. Brady hit wide receiver Deion Branch for two big plays in the first half -- a 60-yard touchdown and a 45-yarder to set up a 9-yard scoring flip to David Givens.
Those plays -- combined with strong safety Rodney Harrison's 87-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the first half -- gave the Patriots a 24-3 lead at halftime. From there, the Steelers never got closer than 11 points.
The Steelers rallied in the second half, trimming the Patriots' lead to 31-17. Then, after the Steelers secured first-and-goal at the 4 early in the fourth quarter, running back Jerome Bettis was stopped for two 1-yard gains, sandwiched around a fade pass to Plaxico Burress that he could touch with only one hand before it fell incomplete.
Cowher opted for Jeff Reed's 20-yard field goal, instead of going for a touchdown. Cowher said there was too much time left in the game (13:29), and the ball was too far from the goal line (2-yard line) to try for a touchdown.
"I'd do it again, too," Cowher said.
Leading 31-20, the Patriots responded with a 31-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri and a 23-yard touchdown run by Branch that ended any uncertainty.
The Steelers' rally only teased fans looking for a monumental comeback.
The Steelers never looked like they were in control of the game's momentum. After Bettis' 5-yard touchdown run cut the lead to 24-10 early in the third quarter, the Patriots responded with a 69-yard touchdown drive that was punctuated by Dillon's 25-yard touchdown run.
The score immediately followed a reversal of a fumble by Patriots receiver David Givens that was recovered by Steelers cornerback Willie Williams. Patriots coach Bill Belichick challenged the call, and when referee Walt Anderson returned the ball to the New England, the Steelers' spirit appeared deflated, especially when linebacker Clark Haggans was called for a 15-yard personal foul penalty. Dillon scored easily while Haggans wondered what he did wrong.
Haggans said an official told him that he hit tight end Daniel Graham, but Haggans said he was only running to the area of the fumble to help Williams.
The scoring drive also was helped by a holding penalty against Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith that turned a third-down incomplete pass into a New England first down.
In the first quarter, the Patriots jumped to a 10-0 lead after two big Steelers mistakes. Free safety Eugene Wilson intercepted a Roethlisberger pass at the Pittsburgh 48 and the Steelers later failed to convert a fourth-and-one at the New England 39.
The Steelers paid when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal -- the longest by a visitor in Heinz Field history -- and Branch caught his 60-yard touchdown pass from Brady. Branch ran past cornerback Deshea Townsend for the score.
"Today, the Patriots were just a better team," Ward said. "We didn't play our 'A' game, and they did."