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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took a turn holding the AFC title trophy. He's now 8-0 in the playoffs.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took a turn holding the AFC title trophy. He's now 8-0 in the playoffs. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

It's back to the Super Bowl

Patriots oust Steelers, 41-27; Eagles final foe

PITTSBURGH -- These Patriot playoff wins are like Ray Charles songs, Nantucket sunsets, and hot fudge sundaes. Each one is better than the last.

Last night, the Patriots earned their third trip to the Super Bowl in four years with a 41-27 win over the 16-1 Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game. Ever-prepared and thoroughly dominant, the obedient sons of Bill Belichick silenced the Heinz Field crowd early, bolting to a 24-3 lead in the first half. With a chance to earn modern dynasty status, the Patriots will play the championship-starved Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., Feb. 6.

''I know people see the Patriots in the Super Bowl now and think it's commonplace," said New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi. ''But we really cherish this. Still. It doesn't happen a lot and you realize that when it does happen, it's very, very special."

''This is what we've dreamt about," said Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

While their families and friends huddled in front of televisions inside snow-encased homes back in New England, the Patriots took the fight to the Steelers on their home turf. New England thoroughly demoralized Pittsburgh in the first two quarters and you could hear a dollop of ketchup drop when Patriots safety Rodney Harrison returned an interception 87 yards for a touchdown just before intermission. New England intercepted ballyhooed rookie Ben Roethlisberger three times and recovered a fumble while committing zero turnovers.

The 16-2 Patriots performed a similar surgical dissection (20-3) of the flavor-of-the-month Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough one week earlier, and the national pundits are finally coming around. The Patriots have been established as 6-point favorites to win a second consecutive Super Bowl and their third since 2002. The Steelers put up a better fight late in the game, cutting the lead to 31-20, but the outcome was never in doubt as New England's wonderboy quarterback, Tom Brady, improved his lifetime playoff record to 8-0. Belichick is 9-1 as a playoff coach, which matches the mark of the legendary Vince Lombardi. Pretty good company.

"I don't think I'm deserving of that," said Belichick. "That's stretching it a little bit, but I'm fortunate to be coaching this team."

The Steelers had won 15 straight games, including a 34-20 rout of New England at Heinz Oct. 31. The Halloween horror show snapped the Patriots' 21-game winning streak.

"That's what makes this one of the more gratifying games of my career," said Bruschi. "It's not often you get a second chance like this. They manhandled us, and to come back from that like this is pretty special."

It was 11 degrees at gametime, with a windchill of minus-1. The Steelers took the opening kickoff, but Roethlisberger was in trouble from the start. On Pittsburgh's third play from scrimmage, the Patriots intercepted near midfield. It was your basic Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance play as Roethlisberger's pass was tipped by Antwaan Randle El, off Asante Samuel, then into the arms of Eugene Wilson (two interceptions).

The Patriots' offense stalled, but ever-deadly kicker Adam Vinatieri dropped a 48-yard field goal over the crossbar to make it 3-0 in the fourth minute of play. Scoring first is a Patriot trademark, even in the AFC Championship game.

The Steelers turned it over again on their second possession when normally surehanded Jerome Bettis coughed up the ball on a fourth-and-1 play from the New England 39. On the next play, Brady connected with Deion Branch on a 60-yard post pattern and it was 10-0 with 6:49 left in the first quarter. It was the Patriots' longest play of the season.

The home team broke into the scoring column with a 43-yard field goal by Jeff Reed before the end of the first quarter, but the Patriots were just getting started. Another long strike to Branch, this one for 45 yards -- again over the top -- gave New England the ball on Pittsburgh's 14-yard line with eight minutes left in the half. Two plays later, Brady found David Givens on the right side and Givens walked into the end zone after confused cornerback Willie Williams fell down. It was 17-3.

Then came the key play of the night. After Pittsburgh marched to the New England 19, Roethlisberger rolled to his right, threw toward Jerame Tuman, then watched in horror as Harrison cut in front of Tuman, caught the pass, and ran 87 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown that made it 24-3. The Steelers did not cover themselves in glory on this play. Ten Pittsburgh players stayed behind and watched while Roethlisberger pursued Harrison. Mike Vrabel came up to block the Steelers quarterback and Harrison stopped running full tilt about 15 yards from the goal line. For all practical purposes, that was the ballgame.

"A big play," said Belichick. "That's at least a 10-point swing right there."

Harrison said, "It was just smooth sailing. I was seeing nothing but greenery. They wanted to intimidate us, but you can't intimidate us. We've got the right guys, a good mix of guys who come in and play unselfish football."

Pittsburgh fought back after halftime, marching 56 yards in five plays on its first drive and cutting New England's lead to 24-10 on a 5-yard TD run by Bettis.

Minutes later, it looked like the Steelers would get the ball back on a fumble by Givens, but the call was reversed and Corey Dillon ran 25 yards into the end zone on the next play to make it 31-10. Dillon's score was the official backbreaker even though there was 7:27 left in the third period.

While "terrible towels" went limp and some Steelers fans bolted for the Roberto Clemente Bridge, the Steelers finally showed some starch and scored another touchdown on a 30-yard pass to Hines Ward.

The Steelers weren't done. They were driving toward the end zone when the third period ended and settled for a field goal that cut New England's lead to 31-20.

Then the Patriots went back to work with a clock-eating drive, making it 34-20 on a 31-yard Vinatieri field goal with 8:03 left. Wilson intercepted another Roethlisberger pass on the next series, and Branch capped a 10-play drive by running 23 yards into the end zone to make it 41-20. The Steelers tacked on a touchdown in garbage time, but by then the wiseguys in Vegas already were setting the odds for Super Bowl XXXIX.

Heinz was almost empty when AFC officials wheeled out a platform for a postgame on-field presentation. Joe Namath passed the Lamar Hunt trophy to Bob Kraft, who handed off to Brady.

No fumbles. No interceptions. No turnovers. Another night of almost-perfect football by the almost-perfect team. 

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