PITTSBURGH - For the third time in four years, the Patriots have won the AFC Championship and will return to the Super Bowl Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla., against the Philadelphia Eagles after an emphatic 41-27 win over the Steelers last night at Heinz Field.
It was as if the Patriots sent a gift to millions of New Englanders who were trapped in their homes as a result of the weekend blizzard. The Patriots created their own blizzard of turnovers, toughness, and big plays against a Steelers team that snapped New England’s 21-game winning streak Oct. 31, 34-20.
With the victory, the Patriots ended the Steelers’ and rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s 15-game winning streak. It was the Steelers’ second AFC Championship loss to New England, as coach Bill Belichick improved to 9-1 in the postseason, tying Vince Lombardi’s mark.
In the end, the Patriots stopped the Steelers’ inside running game (Jerome Bettis chugged 64 yards on 17 carries) and forced Roethlisberger to throw three interceptions (two by Eugene Wilson). But the big reason for the win was another money performance from Tom Brady, who threw for two touchdowns. Deion Branch caught four passes for 116 yards and a touchdown and finished off the Steelers with a 23-yard touchdown on a reverse.
Patriots owner Bob Kraft accepted the Lamar Hunt trophy and complimented the Rooney family for the Steelers owners’ seven decades of leadership and excellence.
Belichick wouldn’t comment on tying Lombardi, but said, ``I’m just so proud of these players. Our team really played well in the big games. We have so much respect for [the Steelers] organization. I’m very fortunate to have such a group of great men on this team.’’
Brady improved his postseason record to 8-0.
``[The Steelers] played good tonight,’’ said Brady. ``We got some great determination and we kept answering the bell. Pittsburgh has a tremendous defense and we did a great job of protecting the ball.’’
The Patriots opened as 6-point favorites over the Eagles when they go for their second straight Super Bowl win.
The early backbreaker for the Steelers was Rodney Harrison’s 87-yard interception return for a touchdown that made it a 24-3 with 2:14 remaining in the first half. Roethlisberger stepped back and tried to throw to the right side to tight end Jerame Tuman, but Harrison jumped the route, stepped in front of Tuman and took it the distance, helped by a key block by Mike Vrabel on Roethlisberger that allowed Harrison to jog, then walk to the end zone.
The Patriots had gone ahead, 17-3, on a five-play drive where Brady connected on a 46-yard pass and great catch by Branch, who caught the ball at the numbers while getting hit by Troy Polamalu at the Steelers’ 14.
Two plays later, Brady appeared to check off at the line when he spotted the defense playing off David Givens. Brady hit Givens with a quick toss, freezing corner Willie Williams, who slipped and allowed Givens to run 9 yards untouched into the end zone.
The Patriots completely dominated the first half.
If you asked the Patriots for their ideal start, they’d have asked for a quick lead to take the Steelers and their fans out of it.
That’s what happened.
The Patriots forced two early turnovers. Wilson picked off Roethlisberger on the hosts’ first possession. The rookie overthrew Antwaan Randle El, who got a hand on the ball, before it deflected off Asante Samuel’s hands and landed in the hands of a diving Wilson.
It was Roethlisberger’s eighth interception in his last 87 throws.
The Patriots took over at the Steelers 48, and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis got creative. In an attempt to loosen up the Pittsburgh defense, Weis called an end around to Branch, who raced around the right side for 13 yards. The Patriots were able to use a couple of Corey Dillon runs, getting the ball to the 30 before Brady’s third-down pass to David Patten was deflected by DeShea Townsend.
The Patriots settled for Adam Vinatieri’s Heinz Field-record 48-yard field goal.
It wasn’t the best result for the Patriots, but they had scored first. Then the defense once again made a play to help the offense.
It came on the Steelers’ second possession, when Bill Cowher elected to go for it on fourth-and-inches at the Patriots 39.
Right before the play, Belichick called middle linebacker Ted Johnson over to deliver a message. Whatever it was, it worked.
The Steelers decided to go up the middle with Bettis, but the Patriots had the play stacked. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin was able to get behind Bettis’s left shoulder, forcing the big bruiser to fumble for the second time in as many playoff games. The Patriots had stuffed the play for no gain, which would have turned it over to New England anyway, but the loose ball was recovered by Vrabel.
The Patriots took over with 6:58 to play in the first quarter. On the first play, Weis, who has always gone for the jugular when he has a team down, had Brady throw the ball downfield to Branch, who caught it at about the 5-yard line and stumbled his way into the end zone. Brady made the play work when he looked over the middle, which drew Polamalu over, leaving Branch alone with Townsend for the 60-yard touchdown reception, the longest in Patriots postseason history.
Trailing, 10-0, the Steelers got on the board via a 43-yard field goal by Jeff Reed after Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward for a 19-yard gain to the Patriots 29. The Steelers couldn’t muster much more before settling for 3.
An action-packed third quarter resulted in Pittsburgh making a game of it. The Steelers trailed, 24-3, at the half, but scored two touchdowns and a field goal to pull to within 31-20 with 13:29 remaining in the game. Both teams were aided by overturned plays on challenges that led to scores. The Steelers got their break when Givens made what appeared to be a 44-yard catch over the middle for an apparent first down at the Patriots 28. But before Brady could run the next play, Cowher tossed the red beanbag and officials overturned the call, ruling the ball hit the ground. That forced the Patriots to punt.
The Steelers started at their 45 following a 22-yard return by Randle El and drove to the New England 3. But on fourth and 3, Cowher sent in Reed, who drilled a 20-yard field goal.
The Patriots had received a big break on another play involving Givens, who had caught an 18-yard pass and appeared to fumble. Officials ruled Williams had recovered, but a look by the replay judge revealed that Givens’s knee had hit the ground. A 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty to Clark Haggans was tacked on. On the next play, Dillon, who had been contained quite nicely, ran behind Stephen Neal around the right side and went 25 yards into the end zone to give the Patriots a 31-10 lead.
The Steelers had scored on their first possession of the third quarter when Roethlisberger, whose right hand had been soothed with cold water late in the first half, came out with an air of confidence. He led the Steelers on a five-play, 56-yard drive, the big play a 34-yard pass to Randle El. Bettis took it in from the 5.