A switch had been made under cover of fog. How else to explain
the New England Patriots' role-reversing 28-3 win over the
Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff? While
the Patriots came into the game with a defense made up of
competent unknowns, their Steelers counterparts arrived in
Foxboro with a nickname--Blitzburgh--and a recent record of
violence against quarterbacks.
In a wild-card playoff game on Dec. 29, Pittsburgh sacked
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh four times, broke
one of his teeth and opened a gash on his chin that required 15
stitches. But on Sunday, in a fog so dense that Foxboro Stadium
resembled the inside of Hunter S. Thompson's head, the Patriots
played like the Steelers while the Steelers played like the old
Defending AFC champion Pittsburgh had the NFL's second-best sack
total (51) during the regular season, but it was the New England
front seven (33 sacks in 1996) that generated the most heat on
Sunday. The Steelers' quarterback combination of Mike Tomczak
and Kordell (Slash) Stewart, rather than Patriots passer Drew
Bledsoe, spent the afternoon serving as crash-test dummies.
Afterward, the New England defenders, an unheralded but steadily
improving bunch, revealed their motivation: They were tired of
hearing about, as defensive end Willie McGinest put it, "Slash
this and Blitzburgh and the Bus [Steelers running back Jerome
Complementing their righteous indignation was a bold game plan
in which the Patriots stunted and blitzed as aggressively as the
Steelers usually do. New England also had luck on its side: The
Bus had a bad wheel. Bettis suffered a tear in his right groin
against the Colts and was listed as questionable for the
Last Thursday night he limped into his local Hooters restaurant
to check out, among other things, the national championship game
between Florida and Florida State. When a group of businessmen
nearby lit cigars, Bettis, who is asthmatic, asked to be seated
elsewhere. The waitress instead reseated the smokers, to whom
Bettis apologized. "I would have moved," he said. "Oh, no,"
replied one man. "We wouldn't want you to aggravate your groin."
New England's defense was less solicitous, limiting Bettis to 43
inconsequential yards on 13 carries. Pittsburgh's quarterbacks
were similarly ineffective. Tomczak completed 16 of 29 passes
for 110 yards and two interceptions, and Stewart went 0 for 10,
providing not his usual spark but rather a definitive answer to
the question his fans have posed to Steelers coach Bill Cowher
all season: Why don't you make Slash the starter?
Far more surprising than the flat performance of Pittsburgh's
offense was the sight of Steelers defenders on their heels,
missing tackles, wandering around in a fog in the fog. The NFL's
second-ranked defense against the run was overrun. New England
running back Curtis Martin's 166 rushing yards on 19 carries
included a 78-yarder that put the Patriots on top 21-0 just five
minutes into the second quarter. With such a comfortable lead,
New England was able to stay out of predictable situations on
offense, and thus out of Blitzburgh. As Steelers outside
linebacker Chad Brown said of the Patriots, "They became the
Actually, the dictators will square off in the AFC Championship
Game this Sunday, when New England hosts the Jacksonville
Jaguars, whose coach, the autocratic Tom Coughlin, was once an
assistant under the Patriots' despotic Bill Parcells. Both men
had ample opportunity to frown, scream and carry on in
tyrannical fashion when their teams met in September. The
Patriots won 28-25 in overtime but only after coughing up a 22-0
lead and surrendering two Hail Mary passes.
New England made effective use of the long ball against the
Steelers. Mindful of Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson's
hyperaggressive style, Bledsoe had suggested opening the game
with a play-action bomb to speedy wideout Terry Glenn, who
caught an NFL rookie-record 90 passes in the regular season.
After resisting the notion at first, Parcells came around. The
Patriots' first play from scrimmage, a 53-yard completion to
Glenn, set up the first of Martin's three rushing touchdowns.
Odd thing about Martin: He has been a happier player this season
even as his role in the offense has shrunk. Last season he
rushed for 1,487 yards, was selected NFL Rookie of the Year and
made the Pro Bowl. "And we won six games," he says. This season,
with Bledsoe throwing so often to Glenn, Martin's rushing
yardage dipped to 1,152. "And we're one game from the Super
Bowl," he says. "I couldn't be happier."
After New England chose him in the third round of the 1995
draft, Martin asked for number 29, which he had worn at
Pittsburgh's Allderdice High and the University of Pittsburgh.
But that number belonged to cornerback Myron Guyton, so Martin
took number 28. When he mentioned the switch to his pastor,
Leroy Joseph of Pittsburgh's Faith Restoration Ministry, the
pastor exclaimed, "Deuteronomy 28!"
Martin has marked that chapter with a yellow highlighter in his
Bible, and he reads it before games. Sitting in one of the
coaches' offices an hour after Sunday's victory, he read from it
again, this time aloud. "The enemies who rise up against you
will be defeated before you. They will come at you in one
direction but flee from you in seven."
While Martin immerses himself in the Book of Deuteronomy on
Sunday, other Patriots will be concentrating on Hail Marys.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Hit and Mist Steeler Chris Oldham (24) stormed in on Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe on this play; otherwise, New England reigned in this AFC divisional playoff game (page 44). [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Little-known linemen Dwayne Sabb (95) and Ferric Collons introduced themselves to Stewart. [Dwayne Sabb and Ferric Collons tackling Kordell (Slash) Stewart]