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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It might not have been as emphatic as the one quarterback Tom Brady delivered after producing the winning touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, but you get the feeling New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick might have given a tiny fist pump when the 2011 schedule came out and he saw his team's bye week situated before a late-October visit to Pittsburgh.
Sure, New England has dominated the series against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Belichick era, winning six of eight meetings since 2001, including AFC championship games during the Super Bowl seasons of 2001 and 2004. But with three Super Bowl appearances and two titles of their own over the past five seasons, the Steelers have essentially jockeyed with -- and maybe even overtaken -- the Patriots in the recent battle for AFC supremacy.
That rivalry resumes Sunday when the 5-2 Steelers host the 5-1 Patriots at Heinz Field. With the Steelers the defending AFC champs, Belichick knows the road to the Super Bowl passes through Pittsburgh, and, to him, every extra second of preparation could be the difference in the game.
"They look good as usual -- the AFC champion last year -- a lot of the same players, same schemes," Belichick said. "Big challenge, a lot to get ready for. They do a lot of things to make it tough on you. They're well coached, [they have] a lot of talent in all three phases of the game.
"Both teams know each other well, so I don't think there will be a ton of surprises here. It will come down to preparation, execution and decision-making on game day. Hopefully we can do a good job of that."
The Patriots figure to have a small advantage -- or at least a head start -- in the preparation department. While players enjoyed five days off during the bye week, the Patriots did hold two practice sessions last week before breaking, and Belichick noted the team dove right into work on the Steelers.
New England is 9-2 coming off its bye week in Belichick's tenure, having won eight years in a row.
Given the number of recent meetings, Belichick and his staff have a good idea of what to expect from Pittsburgh. Belichick noted Monday that its defense hasn't really changed since Bill Cowher took over in 1992, yet the Steelers are second in yards allowed (279 yards per game), third in points allowed (17.4 points per game) and tops in the league against the pass (171.9 yards per game).
"We've got our hands full," Patriots receiver Deion Branch said Monday during a weekly call to Boston sports radio WEEI. "We've got to hit the ground running this week."
Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien agreed. "You just look at, they're No. 3 in the league in defense and they're No. 1 against the pass," he said. "They haven't given up 100 yards to a receiver -- reception-wise -- and they haven't given up a 300-yard game to a quarterback. They're, again, stout against the run, just like they always have been. They're a typical Steeler defense.
"We're going to have to have a great week of preparation and then put together a good plan and go up there, and we're going to have to play a really good game to have a chance."
|Even in his ninth season, Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu is playing as well as any safety in the league, says Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.|
Maybe most impressive is how the Steelers have rebounded after being throttled by the Baltimore Ravens 35-7 in Week 1. During Showtime's "Inside the NFL" program that week, analyst Warren Sapp opined that the Steelers were three things: "Old, slow and over."
The Steelers pitched a shutout against Seattle a few days later and have allowed just 14.5 points per game over their past six contests. Asked about those who prematurely buried Pittsburgh, O'Brien scoffed.
"I have no idea where anyone would get that impression," he said. "I really believe this is a tough defense, a smart defense, a really well-coached defense. You look at Troy Polamalu -- he's in his ninth year and this guy is playing as well as any safety in the league. That's an example of a bunch of veterans on their defense that are playing well, as well as their younger players. So I don't see that at all."
That being said, the Patriots have usually found a way to put up points against Pittsburgh, with a 33-10 loss in November 2008 being the only time New England didn't score at least 20 during the eight meetings in the Belichick era.
The Patriots piled up 453 yards of total offense, including 350 through the air, during a 39-26 thrashing last year in Pittsburgh that was highlighted by three touchdown catches by tight end Rob Gronkowski. There's a good chance the Steelers are watching that film early this week trying to ensure those errors don't happen again.
The Patriots probably watched that film numerous times last week, hoping they do.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.