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And the beat goes on

JJ Feigenbaum is a freshman at Wesleyan and an Andover, MA native. He has followed the Patriots for the entire 18 years of his life. Fanaticism runs in the blood, as his father, Mark Feigenbaum, was Patriots Fan of the Year in 1996. Ladies beware; he plans to name his first-born child, son or daughter, Belichick.

When an eight year old, even one that can recite the starting quarterbacks of every NFL team, has the defining word on your day I guess that tells you something. Sorry Ben, really, I am. Someday, it will probably be your year, just not while the Pats are around. Today, though, you just got beat. My little brother Tommy, watching the game at home with my father and what sounded like a roomful of other middle-aged football fans, right where he feels at home, called me in the third quarter of the AFC championship game to tell me he had come up with a new nickname for Ben Rothlisberger. “Rothlis-rookie,” my 8-year-old brother told me over the phone. “I think we should call him Rothlis-rookie.”

Based his performance on Sunday, the kid is exactly right about the other kid. Rothlisberger’s line was a very unimpressive 14-of-23 passing for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns matched by a troika of interceptions. And before we diagnose his stats any further, it needs to be noted the greatness of the word troika. Okay, now we can move on. If we ignore the garbage time passing yards and final touchdown to Plaxico Burress, we see Big Ben came up far from huge in the biggest game of his life. He threw an interception on his first pass and things only got worse from there. Rodney Harrison showed his Pro Bowl counterpart Troy Polamalu how to play safety in a big game, stepping in front of a Rothlisberger pass and taking it to the house, slamming the metaphorical dagger into the metaphorical hearts of the Steelers and their fans. But I can assure you, the pain that resulted was anything but metaphorical.

But we can’t blame it all on Rothlisberger: the Bus ran out of gas to the tune of a 3.8 yard-per-carry average. Jim Nantz mentioned Bettis is considering retirement after the game, and though I can hardly be objective on one of my least favorite players in the history of my own fandom, I wish him the best of luck on the infomercial spokesman circuit and cannot wait to buy a juicer from him. On the same note, the Pittsburgh receivers were limited and the defense, well, it was pretty clear based on the 41 points the Patriots put up that they did not play like the best defense in the league.

As Michael Smith put it in his ESPN.com column this morning, “[E]ven with all the Steelers’ miscues, there was no confusing who was the better team at Heinz Field Sunday.” A-friggin-men. Certainly no one in Yellow and Black did anything to win the game, but I think it is because the Patriots simply wouldn’t let them. Maybe we can chalk Big Ben’s first pick up to early jitters, as his pass sailed over his own receiver’s hand, bounced off Asante Samuel and into Eugene Wilson’s waiting arms. But the second was, simply put, Rodney Harrison making a fantastic play on the ball, jumping the route. On the third interception, for a second there I was certain it was January of 2002 all over again, and Kordell Stewart had just been picked off by Tebucky Jones icing the game. Instead, it was Wilson foiling the Steelers absolute last effort with an interception of Rothlisberger. Sure, part of it was Wilson getting lucky, but plenty of the play was also the pressure on the rookie QB by the defensive line and the match ups and positioning of the defensive backs. When Bettis lost the football on the failed fourth-down conversion in the first quarter, it wasn’t Bettis failing to make a big play, it was the Pats defense, hurt, undermanned, disrespected, all of that, making a huge play, the same way they have the past four years. Maybe it was quite as clear as when Tedy Bruschi truly ripped the ball out of James Mungro’s hands last weekend, but it was the same idea. The Pats defense stepped up and played like a group of winners, but more than that, like a group of winners hungry to win more.

On offense for the Pats, it was the same thing. The Pittsburgh defense didn’t fail; they were beat, play after play, by Tom Brady and company. On the early deep touchdown to Deion Branch, Brady read the coverage and made the play. If the safety had stayed on Branch, being the great quarterback that he is, Brady would have gone underneath, finding a shorter receiver in the area vacated by the safety. It’s not rocket science, it is football. It’s just that the Patriots do it better than anyone else on the planet. The same goes for the screen pass touchdown to David Givens. Clearly, Brady and Givens took a look at the defense and knew what to do. The Belichick era has been about putting players in position to make plays. Once in position on that play Givens did just that, finding the end zone from nine yards out. The Steeler defense held Corey Dillon to only 73 yards, but when the power back got his chance in the third quarter and saw a hole, he exploded for it, dashing into the end zone on a huge 25-yard TD run, a score that answered, immediately, the Steelers’ first signs of life in the second half. Dillon did not have a great day, but on that play, he had a chance and he executed.

The Rothlis-rookie tag still fits, but much more, it was the entire Steeler team that played like rookies. The Patriots forced them to make mistakes, burned them deep, ran over them and shut them down. But then again, they are the Patriots. If they didn’t do that to other teams, wouldn’t we all be a bit upset? Let’s just see them do it in Jacksonville.


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