FOXBORO, Mass., Jan. 17 -- Toward the end of his Monday news conference, after offering 40 minutes of effusive praise for his team's next opponent, New England Coach Bill Belichick was informed that oddsmakers had already installed the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots as three-point favorites to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game on the road at Heinz Field on Sunday.
"Did someone burn those films?" Belichick asked, referring to the videotape of the last meeting between the teams, a 34-20 Pittsburgh victory at home on Oct. 31 that ended the Patriots' NFL-record winning streak at 18 regular season games, and 21 overall. After spotting the Patriots an early field goal, the Steelers scored 24 unanswered points, 21 in the first quarter, and never were threatened.
Standout runner Corey Dillon did not play on Oct. 31, when the Patriots lost, 34-20, to the Steelers.
(Jessica Rinaldi -- Reuters)
"From the second quarter on, they handled us pretty much everywhere," Belichick said. "I understand how hard it's going to be. Our team understands it. They're the best team we've faced this year."
What Belichick did not say is that his team played that game without running back Corey Dillon, who rushed for 144 yards in the Patriots' 20-3 playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts this past Sunday. He was held out of the Steelers game because of a thigh injury that has long since healed, the only time this season the team played a game without Dillon. He has been a catalyst for the offense all season with 1,635 rushing yards, a franchise record.
The Patriots sent a second-round draft choice to the Cincinnati Bengals in the offseason to acquire Dillon, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound back who does most of his best work between the tackles, but has enough speed to make plenty of yards to the outside. He had been equally productive in Cincinnati, but after seven seasons of losing with the Bengals, he made it known that he wanted out after the 2003 season, and the Patriots knew he would be a perfect fit for their offense.
"He has a good, physical element to his style," Belichick said. "He also has a shiftiness and cutting element. He can bring good power and get tough yards. He's got a very physical running style. The big thing is how consistent he is. Every day in practice, every week all year he's been the same guy. He's good in blitz pick-up, pass protection. He understands what you're trying to do. . . . He's just a good instinctive player."
Dillon will have to be all of that and maybe more against the Steelers -- who led the NFL in defense, and were number one against the rush, in the regular season. But after beating Indianapolis on Sunday, before he wanted to refocus on the Steelers, Dillon preferred to talk about his team's domination of the Colts.
"This was special," he said of his first playoff game. "Usually at this time, you're at home, and to actually be in the playoffs and playing for something, it really means something. I'm going to cherish it. This was my first and I really wanted to make the most of it."
Without Dillon on Oct. 31, the Patriots only ran the ball six times and gained five yards, their lowest total of the season.
Quarterback Tom Brady threw 43 passes and, without a running game, was sacked four times. Against a heavy pass rush, he threw an interception that was returned 39 yards for a first-quarter touchdown by Deshea Townsend.
"When we did have a chance to run, we couldn't do anything," Belichick said of the first game. "We couldn't get anything done against them -- that's the bottom line. The running game, the zone blitzes, the physical play, they bring the same thing every week. We won't see anything different. I can't believe there will be any dramatic changes."
Dillon and the rest of the Patriots players had a day off Monday, but when Dillon was asked about playing the Steelers after the game Sunday, he said: "It helps a little bit knowing that I was in their division for seven years. Believe me, that is a tough team, a very tough team. . . . Hey, this is a different ballgame [than the Oct. 31 loss]. This is the playoffs. Whatever happened in the regular season is left in the regular season."
The first game against Pittsburgh also was significant to the Patriots because Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law broke his foot in the first quarter and is now on the team's injured reserve list, unavailable the rest of the year.
With cornerback Tyrone Poole also out with a knee injury, the Patriots won with backups in the secondary, a hallmark of a team that has used 40 different starters this season.
The Patriots also have long memories. Though they likely will say all the proper things about the Steelers and their 15-game winning streak this week, they also will be reminded by their coaches about how Pittsburgh converted nine third downs and gained 417 yards total offense in their last meeting. They'll remember that rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 18 of 24 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns and that Duce Staley gained 125 yards rushing and Jerome Bettis added 65 more.
"They just kicked our butts," Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson said. "I don't think it's anything crazy from a schematic standpoint. They got it rolling early and we weren't able to get off the field. I remember that. They hammered it on us."