Steelers 34, Patriots 20
-- The New England Patriots came into the game with an NFL-record winning streak, but Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie quarterback, was riding a little streak of his own.
It was Roethlisberger who continued to roll, shredding the Patriots with a flurry of precise first-half passing Sunday evening, sending the defending Super Bowl champions to their first loss in 398 days and ending their record run at 21 straight victories, 18 in the regular season.
Roethlisberger, undefeated in five starts, led the Steelers to a 34-20 victory, completing 11 consecutive passes in the first half and throwing two spectacular touchdown passes to receiver Plaxico Burress in the first quarter. New England (6-1) trailed by 18 points after only 13 minutes and never recovered. The Patriots uncharacteristically had four turnovers that led to 20 Pittsburgh points. The Steelers gained 417 yards of total offense, including 221 rushing yards.
"They outplayed us, and they out-coached us," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said, never mentioning the end of the streak that began after a 20-17 loss to the Washington Redskins on Sept. 28, 2003. "Pittsburgh played an outstanding game. It's what you expect when these two opposing forces collide. . . . We got beat. We got killed. . . . When we turn the ball over and can't stop them on top of that, we're dead."
The Steelers (6-1) were clearly primed for game, coming off a bye week and riding several sweet streaks themselves. They've won five straight to open a two-game lead on the Baltimore Ravens (4-3) in the AFC North. Roethlisberger, who replaced injured Tommy Maddox, hasn't lost as a starter since his Miami (Ohio) team fell to Iowa in August 2003, a run of 18 straight.
"It definitely was difficult," Roethlisberger said. "Their defense is all over the place. They bring guys in from all over the field. . . . It's much more than me. We're playing unselfish football right now, and people are making plays all over the field. . . . I can't say enough for what they've done for me."
The Patriots were not at full strength. Corey Dillon, their workhorse running back and leading rusher, was placed on the inactive list earlier in the day with a bruised thigh, and veteran cornerback Ty Law limped off the field with a foot injury late in the first quarter and never returned. Three plays after Law left for the afternoon, Roethlisberger, displaying the poise of a veteran, went right at his replacement.
Seeing the Patriots were coming with an all-out blitz, Burress said he automatically took off deep, knowing he'd have single coverage. Law's replacement, rookie Randall Gay, was two steps behind when the wide receiver caught his quarterback's throw in full stride for a 47-yard touchdown, the longest scoring pass the Patriots had allowed since September 2002.
That provided a 7-3 lead and was the first of three touchdowns in a 3-minute 33-second stretch. On New England's first play after the kickoff, quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass, and was sacked by linebacker Joey Porter, who hit him an instant before Brady's right arm went into a passing motion. The fumble was recovered by lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen at the Patriots 27, and the Steelers did not waste the opportunity.
Duce Staley, who gained 125 yards in 25 carries, lugged the ball four straight times down to the Patriots 4, and from there, Roethlisberger picked on second-year cornerback Eugene Wilson. He lofted a high ball into the left portion of the end zone, and 6-foot-5 Burress easily out-leaped 5-10 Wilson, while also staying in bounds at the sideline. The Patriots were trailing 14-3, a bigger deficit than they had ever faced during their 21-game winning streak.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots started at their own 33, and New England's record run essentially ended right there. Brady dropped back and threw toward receiver Bethel Johnson, who was well-covered. Brady's pass was easily caught by cornerback Deshea Townsend, who ran 39 untouched yards to the end zone for his second career touchdown interception, good for a 21-3 Pittsburgh lead with 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
Until Townsend's score, the Patriots had not allowed a defensive touchdown since the 2003 season opener. In their first six games this season, their defense had given up only 10 total points in the first quarter and hadn't yielded 21 points in any quarter since November 2002.
On a night when Roethlisberger introduced himself to a national audience with a brilliant performance -- 18 completions in 24 attempts for 196 yards, two scores, no sacks and no interceptions -- Brady had one of his worst performances. The Steelers blitzed him with impunity before and after opening that 21-3 lead, and by the time the final gun sounded, he'd been sacked four times for 28 yards in losses, and bounced to the turf countless times after releasing the ball.
The Steelers insisted afterward the victory will mean nothing unless they can do it again here next Sunday, when the undefeated Eagles come to town. They also said they were tired of hearing they hadn't won any meaningful games against quality opponents this season.
"A lot of people said, 'You haven't played anyone,' " said veteran wide receiver Hines Ward. "But we have no control over that. You play who they tell you to play. A lot of people picked us to be third or fourth in the division. We're proving people wrong. No one's complaining now."