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Anticipation the theme for Heinz

Venue alone shouldn't slow Patriots

FOXBOROUGH -- How much of a factor will the home-field advantage be in Sunday's AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Steelers at Pittsburgh?

The Heinz Field surface can be tricky. The Patriots had problems with their footing in a 34-20 loss there Oct. 31. Ty Law, in fact, broke his left foot when it got caught in the sod. There hasn't been a field goal longer than 48 yards at Heinz Field since its opening in 2001.

The Patriots beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 24-17, in an AFC Championship game Jan. 27, 2002, when Drew Bledsoe scraped off the rust in relief of Tom Brady, who hurt his ankle.

In addition to field issues, the temperature Sunday will be chilly. The forecast high for Sunday is 22.

The Patriots aren't the Indianapolis Colts or Minnesota Vikings -- dome teams that excel in controlled conditions but have problems outside. In Foxborough, they have their own field and weather conditions that benefit them. The Steelers, likewise, know their surface better than anyone.

The Patriots were 6-2 away from Gillette Stadium this season, a road record most teams would die for. They lost in Pittsburgh and they lost in Miami. The Steelers are 9-0 at Heinz.

One thing Heinz can do is eat up kickers. Just ask Doug Brien of the New York Jets, who missed field goal attempts of 47 and 43 yards last Saturday, either of which would have beaten the Steelers and sent the Jets to Foxborough to decide the AFC title.

"It's not the easiest place to execute a kick, but it's the same for everybody," said Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, who kicked a 44-yard field goal in the AFC Championship game three years ago and converted both attempts (43 and 25 yards) in this season's meeting.

In that October game, Vinatieri kicked on a 64-degree day with winds coming out of the west at 13 miles per hour. It was mild for the AFC Championship game in '02, as well: 50 degrees with 16-m.p.h. winds from the southwest.

No visiting kicker ever has made a field goal longer than 46 yards at Heinz. Some of it is the wind currents, some of it is the footing.

"The turf is sturdier than it was," said Steelers kicker Jeff Reed. "There's a little bit of a lack of grass, but at the same time you can still plant your foot and not slip all the time. I think it's fine. Both teams play on it."

Jets guard Pete Kendall said, "It's a tough field for kickers. Anything over 40 yards for a visiting kicker isn't easy because of the winds and the field."

But he suspects that Vinatieri won't have any serious problems.

"I think there'll be a very minimal advantage for Pittsburgh," Kendall said. "Obviously, the Patriots are used to playing on a bad field. They played on one last week."

Former Baltimore Ravens quarterback Chris Redman, whom the Patriots have signed to a one-year deal for next season, said playing at Heinz has its particular problems.

"It's not really the field, but it's really loud there," said Redman. "The fans there know when to quiet down and when they're supposed to make noise, and they do make a lot of noise. The fans are really into it and I think sometimes it just makes it tough on offense."

But according to Kendall, "It's not as loud as some other stadiums you play in. I think there were two or three times in the game where maybe the tackles and the tight ends had a little problem hearing, but New England has a silent snap count, like most teams, so that shouldn't be a problem.

"It really comes down to who plays better, I think. I don't know what the weather or the field conditions will be at game time. I know because the field is heated there, there tends to be some loose pieces of sod that come up once in a while. But, again, for a team like ours or a team like the Patriots, it shouldn't be a major problem."

Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter, whose team handed the Steelers their only loss of the season Sept. 19 in Baltimore, said, "The field can get sloppy, but it's sloppy in New England, too. The Steelers make it sloppy because they grind and they grind and they grind with their running game. They try to wear you down. If you stop them, no matter, they keep coming at you. New England is the same way, and they can beat you down the field with their passing game."

But Baxter agrees with Redman that the Steelers have a "12th man" in their fans.

"They wave those Terrible Towels, or whatever they are, and you can see it and you can hear it," Baxter said. "It's an electrifying place for the home team.

"But against the Patriots, I'm not sure it's a big issue unless Pittsburgh gets on top. That's going to be a great game. That's smashmouth football right there. I know Pittsburgh beat them the first time, but second time? I don't know if the Patriots could lose a second time."

The Steelers' Bill Cowher will be coaching in his fifth AFC Championship game, his fourth at home, but he has won only one (in 1995, against Indianapolis). Asked whether he's changed his approach, Cowher said, "No, I think every game has been a pretty good football game. We've just been coming out on the short end more times than not.

"I think we've been prepared to play every game. When you're in the playoffs, you can't turn the football over. [Turnovers] have a way of staring you in the face at the end of the football game."

The conclusion to be drawn is that playing at Heinz might be slippery, but that won't be the reason the Steelers win or the Patriots lose. 

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