PITTSBURGH, Jan. 23 -- The New England Patriots exposed Ben Roethlisberger as a rookie quarterback not quite ready for prime-time playoff pressure Sunday night in the AFC championship game and positioned themselves to become the first professional football dynasty of the 21st century with a 41-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In front of a Heinz Field record crowd of 65,242, the Patriots used three first-half turnovers to open a 24-3 halftime lead in advancing to their third Super Bowl in four seasons under Coach Bill Belichick. He joins the legendary Vince Lombardi as the all-time winningest coach in playoff history by percentage (.900). Both have 9-1 records.
Steelers tight end Jerame Tuman is left grounded as Patriots safety Rodney Harrison turns upfield toward Coach Bill Belichick (arms raised) and the end zone for an 87-yard interception return.
(Robert Galbraith -- Reuters)
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also moved into uncharted territory Sunday, improving to a record 8-0 as a starting quarterback in the playoffs to begin his career. Brady was equally impressive throwing deep or short against the NFL's top-ranked defense. The Patriots (16-2) will face the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10 winners over the Atlanta Falcons earlier in the day, in Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6 at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla.
"These guys have met strong challenges every week, none more so than the Steelers," Belichick said. "I give them all the credit in the world for their mental and physical toughness, their resiliency, their ability to play well under pressure. They deserve all the credit for this one."
Brady should get plenty of it in the two weeks leading up to his next game. On a evening of 11-degree temperatures (minus-one wind chill at kickoff) he threw two touchdowns, including a 60-yarder to wide receiver Deion Branch in the first quarter to open an early 10-0 lead. Brady finished 14 of 21 for 207 yards and for the second straight week did not have an interception.
The Patriots forced Roethlisberger, the Steelers' rookie who entered the game with an NFL record 14-0 mark as a starter, into three interceptions and ended Pittsburgh's 15-game winning streak. Safety Rodney Harrison returned one of those interceptions 87 yards for a touchdown to help the Patriots open a 21-point lead at intermission. It was the quarterback's second straight poor performance in the playoffs. He threw two interceptions against the New York Jets in the Steelers' 20-17 overtime victory last Saturday in the Steelers' first playoff game. In his first two postseason games, Roethlisberger had three touchdown passes and five interceptions.
"Unfortunately it wasn't a great game on my part," Roethlisberger said. "It was a great year for us. Unfortunately, it didn't end the way we wanted it to."
"Yeah, [Roethlisberger] had a tough game," said Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who may have played the final game of a 12-year career. "He'd be the first to tell you that. Unfortunately he made some mistakes, and they cost us some points. We still had some opportunities, but we couldn't take advantage of them."
The Steelers kept fighting back in the second half but never got closer than 11 points. Coach Bill Cowher was booed when he chose to kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the 2 with 13 minutes 29 seconds remaining that cut the lead to 31-20. The Patriots then used 5 1/2 minutes before Adam Vinatieri kicked a 31-yarder for a 14-point lead, and when safety Eugene Wilson made a diving interception, his second of the game, to end the Steelers' next possession, many fans headed for their cars.
"I think with 13 and a half minutes to go, to only be down by 11, which is just two scores . . . I thought there was too much time to go with two yards to come away with nothing," Cowher said. "That was my decision. I would do it again."
The Patriots had been embarrassed Oct. 31 when they came to Heinz Field, losing 34-20 and ending their NFL winning streak at 21 straight games, 18 in the regular season. As usual for a team that relies on deeds over words to make its point, none of their players spoke of revenge in the week leading up to the game, though several predicted a far more competitive contest this time around.
"It was a terrible effort by us last time here," Brady said. "We took sacks. We got intercepted. We didn't play well in every way. The thing I've learned in these playoff games is you can't make mistakes or you'll lose. You have to be perfect."
Roethlisberger got off to a poor start. The first pass he threw on the Steelers' opening drive was behind wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, who got a hand on the ball. So did Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, keeping it alive for Wilson to intercept and give the Patriots field position at the Pittsburgh 48. That led to Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal, tying the longest kick in Heinz Field's three-year history.
The Patriots had their second turnover minutes later when the Steelers gambled on fourth and one at the New England 39. Bettis got the ball but ran into a wall of defenders and was thrown back. New England linebacker Roosevelt Colvin stripped the ball, and teammate Mike Vrabel recovered at the Patriots 40.
On first down, Branch lined up wide to the left and ran a deep post pattern. Brady looked off safety Troy Polamalu as if he were aiming short, then looked back at Branch, who had cornerback Deshea Townsend beaten by a step. Brady hit Branch with a deep spiral in full stride at the 10, and the fleet wideout kept his balance for a 60-yard touchdown catch. It was the Patriots' longest scoring pass of the season and produced a 10-0 lead with 6:49 left in the first quarter. It also was the longest play the Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense had given up all year.
Midway through the second quarter, Brady threw a quick pass in the flat to David Givens. Cornerback Willie Wilson, giving him almost a 10-yard cushion, slipped trying to make the tackle, and Givens easily scampered into the end zone for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead with 7:08 remaining in the first half.
The Patriots foiled Roethlisberger again as the Steelers were driving into position for another score. On second and six at the 19, the rookie was aiming toward tight end Jerame Tuman down the right sideline.
Harrison instead jumped the route, swooped in front of Tuman and went 87 yards untouched with the interception for a 24-3 advantage with 2:14 remaining.
"That was at least a 10-point swing, maybe more," Belichick said. "Rodney's been a big player for us all year, and he stepped up for us again in the big game and made another one."