PITTSBURGH - Their baseball brothers, the Red Sox, are proof that all streaks must end, winning the World Series last week after an 86-year drought. So as if to balance the slate, the sports gods yesterday looked down upon New England and said, “Do not be greedy.”
Thus, the Patriots’ record 21-game winning streak ended. The Team That Could Not Lose finally met its match in the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-20, before a record-breaking Heinz Field crowd of 64,737.
There were no excuses from anyone in the Patriots locker room as to why they lost for the first time since Sept. 28, 2003, to the Steve Spurrier-coached Washington Redskins.
That’s because the Steelers played very much in their tradition, dominating the trenches, creating mistakes, and smashing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the mouth every chance they got.
“I wish we could play again tomorrow,” said New England defensive end Willie McGinest. “We’re not going to make any excuses, like blame the refs, or injuries, or anything like that. It’s disappointing we got our butts kicked and got outplayed. We have to come in tomorrow and look in the mirror and make sure each and every one of us can see what we did to add to this. It’s not the end of the world. We have time to come back from this.”
The Steelers forced turnovers - four of them - which led to Pittsburgh scores. Two were caused by linebacker Jerry Porter, who played an emotional game, saying he was fired up by words McGinest uttered to him before the opening kickoff.
If that was the case he made the Patriots pay big time, and young quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (18 for 24 for 196 yards, two touchdowns and a 126.4 rating) looked as calm and collected as a guy named Bradshaw in picking apart the wounded Patriots secondary.
They didn’t make excuses, but the Patriots were missing starting running back Corey Dillon, had to use a makeshift offensive line with starting right tackle Tom Ashworth out with a back ailment, and then lost left tackle Matt Light, who got the wind knocked out of him.
The Patriots also lost cornerback Ty Law to a foot injury in the third series of the game, and when rookie free agent Randall Gay replaced him, the Steelers went right at him and made the Patriots pay.
But in the past, the Patriots had never missed a beat because of injuries.
“We’ve lost players to injuries before,” said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. “We play as a team. Whoever is in the game has to do their part. That’s the way we do it around here.”
With Dillon out, New England ran the ball six times for 5 yards, forcing Brady to throw it 43 times. The defense allowed the Steelers to romp over them for 221 yards on 49 carries, 125 of which came from Duce Staley on 25 carries. Jerome Bettis, who ran for 65 more yards on 15 carries after totaling 64 yards in the first six games, was effective in the fourth quarter.
Time of possession was 42:58 to 17:02 in favor of the Steelers, who amassed 417 yards in total offense to 248 for the Patriots.
Would things have been different if Dillon or Law had played?
“I couldn’t forecast how [Dillon] was going to play,” said Brady, who threw for 271 yards but was picked off twice and sacked four times. “Corey’s absence didn’t force me into fumbling the ball.”
No curses or outside forces at work here. Just a plain old “butt-whipping” as linebacker Mike Vrabel would call it.
Dexter Reid had a chance to pin the Steelers inside the 5-yard line on a punt early in the first quarter, but instead, Josh Miller’s booming punt tricked through the end zone for a touchback.
It was a big break for the Steelers, who converted their first touchdown on the same series when Law turned the wrong way on coverage of Hines Ward and went down in a heap. Two plays later, Roethlisberger tossed a 47-yard bomb to Plaxico Burress over Gay, who was in one-on-one coverage. The touchdown, with 3:46 remaining in the first, gave the Steelers a 7-3 lead they would not relinquish.
“It was an all-out blitz,” said Roethlisberger. “You have to give the line a lot of credit, because there shouldn’t have been time like that. I saw Plaxico running with a guy on him and I just tried to throw it as far as I could.”
Porter wreaked havoc on Brady on the Patriots’ next possession, blitzing, sacking Brady, and forcing the ball loose at the Patriots’ 27. After four running plays by Staley, Roethlisberger found Burress in the end zone from 4 yards out over Eugene Wilson. The Patriots challenged the diving sideline catch, but it was upheld. Just like that, it was 14-3, and the bad times just wouldn’t end.
Brady’s first play of the next series wound up in the hands of right corner Deshea Townsend, who stepped in front of Bethel Johnson, who had slipped, and took off down the right sideline. His 39-yard score with 13 seconds left in the first made it 21-3.
“They all hurt,” said coach Bill Belichick of the turnovers. “Seven hurt, 14 hurt, 21 hurt. 14-3 would have been more manageable than 21-3. When we turn the ball over and we can’t stop them on top of that, we’re dead.”
But after winning 21 straight, this team never seems dead.
Sure, Brady threw another pick on a long pass intended for Johnson in the second quarter, and that led to a 19-yard field goal by Jeff Reed with 2:06 left in the half, upping the ante to 24-3. But the Steelers committed a big no-no before the end of the half. Playing in a prevent defense, they allowed Brady to put up a touchdown in a two-minute offense, his 2-yard pass finding David Givens with 42 seconds remaining.
That momentum just didn’t carry over.
In fact, Porter created what might have been the biggest turnover of all in the third quarter. He hit Kevin Faulk so hard on a dump-off pass, that Faulk coughed up the ball at the Patriot 17. The Steelers scored four plays later, with Bettis getting into the end zone for the eighth time this season on a 2-yard run with 13:06 left in the third.
“Once we had the lead, we knew they were going to pass the ball,” Porter said. “You have a quarterback who’s not going to run out of the pocket [Brady]. You can kind of rush any way you want. I was trying to take advantage of my opportunities.”
The Steelers just kept churning up the yardage on the ground while taking ticks off the clock. The Patriots desperately tried to come back, Brady and Givens connecting on a 23-yard score with 6:33 to play.
But there would be no heroics. Their baseball brothers had done that for the region; it was time for the Patriots to take the hit.