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Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel celebrate a job well done after the Patriots won their third AFC title in four years.
Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel celebrate a job well done after the Patriots won their third AFC title in four years. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
ON FOOTBALL

Counterpunchers land knockout blow

PITTSBURGH -- They always answered back.

Every time they were challenged, which was several more times than seemed likely early in the game, the New England Patriots answered back. They were like a great counterpuncher, responding whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed to be on the edge of a rally last night. They responded with a crisp, hard punch to Pittsburgh's hopes, disabusing the Steelers of any notion that victory somehow could still be theirs.

Last night the Patriots made clear why they have won two of the last three Super Bowls and why they are on their way to a third Super Bowl in four years as they dismantled the Steelers, 41-27, to win the Lamar Hunt Trophy and the AFC Championship for the third time since the 2001 season.

They are heading to Jacksonville, Fla., to face the Philadelphia Eagles for many reasons, not the least being because they always answered back. Every time they were challenged last night and almost every time they've been challenged all season they did the same thing. They gave it back to their tormentors until the tormentors decided they had better things to do with their time than continue messing with a team whose entire focus is on winning.

Let others talk. Let others beat their chests. Let others be miked for sound. Let others sing and dance and say and do what they will. The Patriots come for only one thing. To take your heart and then take whatever trophy is available to them at the moment.

A week ago they were supposed to lose to the highest-flying offense in the league. The Colts didn't score a touchdown that afternoon.

Last night they were supposed to be in a street fight with the top-seeded 16-1 Steelers. They turned it into a case of assault and battery.

The Patriots trampled the Colts last week and mauled the Steelers last night, more than matching their well-publicized physicality.

That won them the right to represent the AFC again in the Super Bowl and they accomplished it the way they should have -- by beating up the two best teams in the conference. Well, the second- and third-best teams, because the best team was and remains the defending Super Bowl champions.

The best team, the one that drove loyal Steelers fans into the frigid night long before the game was technically over but long after it was finished, was the Patriots. Just as they were a year ago when they embarrassed the Colts in a similar AFC title game before a dramatic last-second win brought them their second Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

This is a team made up of hard-nosed, nimble-footed, mentally tough players masterfully led by Bill Belichick, who tied Vince Lombardi's playoff record at 9-1 last night and put himself one victory from automatic enshrinement in the Hall of Fame five years after he retires.

Before last night's game began, Belichick, his players, and his staff understood that they were coming to the end of their time together. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis would soon be leaving to direct the fortunes of Notre Dame. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will soon be leaving to run his own team in Cleveland. Crennel will very possibly take secondary coach Eric Mangini with him to serve as his defensive coordinator.

Perhaps because of that, their old friend Al Groh, now the coach at Virginia but long a coaching associate with the Giants, Patriots, and Jets, returned to their side in Pittsburgh, spending the day on the sideline watching his former players and old friends do something that moves them all within one more victory of becoming arguably among the two or three most successful teams in the history of professional football.

You can argue all night whether the Patriots of 2001-2004 are as good as the Steelers of 1974-1979 but it doesn't matter. What mattered yesterday was that they were far superior to the Steelers of 2004. So superior that what was supposed to be a close game turned into a 24-3 first-half pounding in which New England turned three turnovers into 17 points in the same way the Steelers had turned three turnovers into a rout of the Patriots on Halloween.

The Patriots had no intention of repeating that Halloween massacre so they made the Steelers duplicate it instead. That afternoon the Steelers jumped off to a 31-10 lead that embarrassed the Patriots, who later admitted they had not only lost the game but had also lost the fight. Battles are often decided by who is willing to take the most risk.

Always one to study the opposition, the Patriots spent the past week reviewing tape of their October loss and recalling how distasteful the flight home was. Then they stormed out and forced three first-quarter turnovers, the first coming on the third play of the game, to jump out to the stunning 24-3 halftime lead, from which the Steelers never recovered.

For a brief moment it appeared Pittsburgh might bully its way back into the game in the third quarter after falling behind, 31-10, when it scored, got the ball back, and drove down field again. Suddenly they were delivering the blows and the Patriots were reeling. The Steelers had first and goal from the Patriots' 4 when the fourth quarter opened and if the Steelers could push across another score they would cut New England's lead to one touchdown with plenty of time to play.

One yard on first down. Incompletion in the end zone on second down when Plaxico Burress did what no New England receiver would have done in a similar situation -- he dropped the ball. One yard on third down. Settle for a field goal. Crawl back to the sideline.

Just like that, at the moment things seemed to be slipping away, the Patriots held. And then they answered back. They counterpunched.

They marched 49 yards in response to what the Steelers had just done, kicking their own 31-yard field goal with 8:03 remaining to make it 34-20 and reminding the Steelers one last time of the fruitlessness of their quest.

They were a good team, those Pittsburgh Steelers. They were tough, too. They just weren't as tough as the Patriots. Or as good. 

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