Patriots 41, Steelers 27

Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots unloads a pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23, 2005 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pats defeated the Steelers 41-27. (AP Photo/Paul Spinelli)

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So what happened?

For starters, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play particularly well. You could argue that his team tried to cover up a thumb injury; several throws did get away from him, and there’s no way that cold water poured on his hand in the first half was for paint removal purposes.

That second interception, however, was not poorly thrown from a technical standpoint. That was a rookie mistake, pure and simple. Big Ben misread the coverage, and Rodney Harrison made him pay for it the same way Reggie Tongue made him pay in the divisional round. You could tell Big Ben was kicking himself on the sideline after he saw the coverage photos.

So the boy didn’t play well. He was a rookie in over his head. He still had a very good rookie seaosn, and he’ll do better next time around.

What about the guys on the frontlines, though? They weren’t nearly this overmatched the last time around. Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley both had too many carries that went for less than three yards, and when the Steelers went for it on 4th and 2 feet in the first quarter, the Patriots’ just stood Bettis up and shut him down. (Kind of like that girl I met at the Kroger a couple years ago.)

In fact, both defenses did a pretty good job shutting down the run. For all the talk about Corey Dillon before the game, he had only 73 yards on 24 carries. Bettis and Staley combined for 90 yards on 27 carries. Dillon and Bettis each had a TD as well. So they had similar days. The real difference maker for the Pats was that guy with the Super Bowl MVP trophies.

He’s a crafty son of a bitch, that Tom Brady. Right after Bettis was stood up on 4th down, Brady took the ball on the next play and threw a perfect 60-yard strike to Deion Branch for a touchdown. Just like that, the Steelers were down 10-0, and with their running game uncharacteristically sputtering, they needed Big Ben to make plays.

The Pats game plan here was actually very similar to the Eagles’ game plan against the Falcons — bottle up the run and force the QB to make plays to win the game. In both cases, it worked.

I don’t care what Phil Simms says, though — kicking the field goal early in the fourth quarter when you’re down two TDs was NOT the right move. Even after they made the field goal, they were still down 11, and it was still a two-possession game. It was a bad decision, and the Steelers all but admitted that they couldn’t punch it in against the Pats in that scenario. The crowd probably shouldn’t have booed so loudly, but it was obvious that they didn’t think it was a play-to-win move for their team. Neither did I.

There was no quit in the Steelers in this one, and they kept trying to give their hometown fans hope until the bitter end, but the Pats had a quality game plan ready, and they worked it to perfection. Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel deserve a lot of credit for this win, but so do Brady and the Pats defense. A coach’s game plan is for naught unless his players execute, and that’s what the Pats did. They’re still the champs until someone knocks ’em off.

So the stage is set for Super Bowl XXXIX, and it’s turned out the way most people thought it would turn out after all. Will the Patriots repeat, or is it finally the year for D.F. McNabb and the Eagles? In spite of my terrible disappointment with this AFC Championship, I will continue to write about all the fun stuff leading up to the main event event. Stick around. We’re not paying the band…

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