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BOB RYAN

Don't expect rematch to be a mismatch

Once again, we are confronted with the essential difference between Him and Us.

We, of course, have been thinking about the Pittsburgh Steelers since the instant that horrendous game of Oct. 31 ended. "We" would include fans, media, and, I am sure, many of the players themselves, and we have been lusting to see a rematch between the Steelers and Patriots because, from a New England point of view, there were too many loose ends and "yeah, buts" attached to that 34-20 Pittsburgh triumph.

He, of course, doesn't think like Us. It's part of his charm. It's also part of the reason he does what he does and the rest of us do whatever it is we do. Unlike the rest of us, he leaves the emotion out of it. Once Pittsburgh was over, he began thinking about other things, like, for example, what needed fixing in order to prevent a repeat scenario the following Sunday at St. Louis.

But Bill Belichick is not the kind of guy who comes out of an Oct. 31 whipping already looking forward to a potential playoff rematch on Jan. 23. He doesn't deal in abstracts and he surely doesn't deal in revenge.

"I never really looked at it that way," he explained. "That's so far down the road. Everything would have to happen in such-and-such a way for that to come about. I would never waste any time thinking about anything like that.

"Am I happy we're playing the Steelers? Absolutely. I don't even mind playing them in Pittsburgh because it's much better than any alternative. It's an opportunity and a privilege to be playing Pittsburgh for the AFC championship. Who knows how many of these opportunities you're going to have? You just try to capture the moment, put your best foot forward, and hope the outcome comes out differently."

The truth is, no matter what he says, playing the Steelers again Jan. 23 at Heinz Field was somewhere between a good possibility and a reasonable certainty. To us, the only real impediment to such a rematch was the Colts, and now we all know they simply lacked the right stuff. We knew the Steelers were going to be there, simply because the AFC team with the No. 1 seed would not be messing with the Colts.

To us, having the No. 1 seed was a free pass to the AFC Championship game. Having the No. 2 seed meant there would be a rigorous challenge to get that far. OK, so count me among the many who overrated the Colts. Now, you may have foreseen it, but I never thought the Patriots would roll and the Steelers would need divine intervention to get by the -- ugh -- J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets.

The Steelers were a great football team on the afternoon of Oct. 31. They treated the Patriots as if they were the East Coast 49ers. "They played and coached way better than we did that day," acknowledged Belichick. "We just couldn't get anything done against them. That was the bottom line."

As we all know, the Patriots went into that game without Corey Dillon. That's no small thing. You think the Colts would like a do-over without Dillon? Could Dillon have prevented the Patriots from falling behind by 21 at the half? If you put it that way, the answer is "no," but if you wonder whether the game could have taken on a different texture from the beginning had he been in there, the answer is "probably."

Dillon may not run for 144 yards against the Steelers Sunday night, but they will know he has been in the game. On Oct. 31, the Patriots had 5 yards rushing in six attempts, and, no, those are not misprints.

That's reason enough for the good people of New England to say that game should not be taken seriously, but there is more. Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was at the top of his game, going 18 of 24 for 196 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He made excellent decisions and he made on-target throw after on-target throw.

But that was then, and this is now. Roethlisberger has been stagnating for a month, and no sooner had he posted a hideous quarterback rating of 57.8 during that fortuitous triumph over the Jets Saturday night than the first e-mail arrived at the morning paper demanding that coach Bill Cowher replace him with Tommy Maddox. Roethlisberger had a very rough night, underthrowing, overthrowing, and throwing behind people. Now he must face Belichick and Romeo Crennel in full playoff laboratory madness. Do the Steelers really think he is ready for this?

When the Patriots went to Pittsburgh Oct. 31, the Steelers were clearly at their team peak. They played a tremendous all-around game, and they repeated that performance a week later against the Eagles. It's a fact the schedule presented them with their two biggest nondivision games at home when they were playing with peak efficiency. But no one was as consistently good as the Steelers were during those two weeks. The Steelers continued to win, but they never have returned to the all-around level of performance they demonstrated against the Patriots and Eagles. No one could.

He was full of praise for the Steelers, as you might expect. He has "so much respect for Bill Cowher." They "deserve all the credit they have gotten." They "have been the best team." They "present a different set of problems." Summing it up: "The Steelers are the Steelers."

And there is a lot to worry about. The Steelers ran the ball better than anyone and they stopped it better than anyone, too. They may have the best offensive line in football. They have big, tough receivers in Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. James Farrior and Joey Porter are great linebackers. Defensive end Aaron Smith is a great player. Most of all, they are nasty.

This will be be part football game, part Tough Man competition.

"They are a physical team, one of the most physical teams in the league," said Belichick. "We will have to match their intensity. That's the way they play, and you'd better be ready for them."

They have won 16 of their 17 games, including the last 15. They've had a great year. But We know who is still wearing the crown, and a lot of Us think the Steelers still have something to prove against the Patriots.

For Him, it's strictly business. For a lot of Us, it's about setting the record straight. We forgive Him for not understanding what this game is really all about. He's a coach, and coaches never get it. He is too busy Xing and Oing, and We like that, because nobody does it better.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

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WHEN: Sunday, 6:30
WHERE: Heinz Field
TV: CBS RADIO: WBCN
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 oct. 31: Pitt. 34, Pats 20
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