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Steelers' trio receiving much-deserved acclaim

PITTSBURGH -- The pecking order is clear. There is Hines Ward, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers in receptions for the sixth straight season and is the only receiver in franchise history to be voted to four Pro Bowls, a mark of distinction on a team that includes Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth on its all-time roster; Plaxico Burress, who is rapidly climbing the ladder of recognition as the team's top deep threat, averaging 19.9 yards per catch, which is second in the NFL among players with at least 30 receptions; and Antwaan Randle El, who serves as a wide receiver, punt and kickoff returner, option passer, and, if he has his way someday, part-time defensive back.

All of this talent on a team where the consensus of opinion is that the passing game is the second choice to the running game.

As the Steelers finished preparations for tomorrow's AFC Championship game against the Patriots, the Pittsburgh receivers were well aware of what they will be up against facing the Patriots' defense.

"It's going to be tough for us to just go out there and maintain our level," said Ward, who caught 80 passes for 1,004 yards during the regular season, the fourth straight year he has topped 1,000 receiving yards. "I'm pretty sure [Patriots] coach [Bill] Belichick is going to have something because Plax is obviously our deep threat and you have to be able to contain him.

"But for us, we've got a lot of threats out on the field, not only just Plax and myself, but you add a guy like Antwaan Randle El and we are just as deadly as the three from Indianapolis.

"But our offense is totally different. We run the ball first and pass the ball second. But when we do pass, we like to take full advantage of the opportunities we do get, and I think Plax made some huge plays in the first game that we played against the Patriots."

In that game, a 34-20 Steelers victory on Oct. 31, Burris had only three receptions for 63 yards, but two were for touchdowns, including a 47-yarder.

Burress recognizes the challenge his team faces tomorrow, but promises not to be overwhelmed by any new wrinkle from Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

"First of all, he's not playing," said Burress of Belichick. "All he does is call the plays. They have players that are unselfish and make things work.

"We did beat them. Now, that was in the past. And we have to do it again."

The X factor in the Steelers' game plan could be Randle El. All the former Indiana University quarterback did this season was lead the Steelers in punt return yardage (347), finish second in kickoff return yardage (527), and haul in 43 passes (second on the team) for 601 yards and three TDs. He also threw his first touchdown pass in the NFL.

He wants to do more, such as play defensive back.

"I'd like to get a chance to do that," said Randle El with a laugh. "Move over Troy Brown."

When asked who was the better all-around player -- himself or Brown -- Randle El laughed again. "That would have to be me," he said.

As the intensity and importance of the games has increased, so has the pressure.

"If it's too much for you, you're in the wrong business," said coach Bill Cowher. "Our guys are looking forward to it."

"All it is," said Randle El of tomorrow's game, "is something that will put you in a game that you have been looking forward to playing in since you were a kid."

"Just cherish the opportunity," said Burress. "It really doesn't come around too often. From a personal standpoint, playing in the AFC Championship in my second year [the 2001 season], I really didn't understand the significance of the football game and the opportunity we had in front of us. All of the guys are very aware of the opportunity that we have."

"I like that kind of pressure," said Ward. "Just being the guy they can depend on to make a play. But for me, it's not just about me. I think for us, we have a lot of playmakers and given each week, there's someone always stepping up that's big. So if I don't -- for whatever reason -- I have all the confidence in the world that the next guy will go out there and make plays."

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