At the beginning of the season, no one would have believed the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers would end up playing for the AFC championship. Such a prediction would have been followed by laughter.
Look who's laughing now. And even though teams sometimes get lucky or may not deserve to play for a Super Bowl berth, the AFC's two best teams will play Sunday (CBS, 12:30 p.m. ET). Like the NCAA Tournament, it's about how teams finish, not how they start. The Steelers and Patriots, the AFC's top two seeds, are playing the best at the right time.
The Patriots might be the unlikeliest of the four teams remaining. They may be the least talented team. Some may believe they survived only because they benefited from a call involving Tom Brady in the fourth quarter against the Raiders last week. But before the controversial call, the Patriots still had to stop Zack Crockett on third-and-one to force a punt. Troy Brown still had to make a play, returning the kick 37 yards to put them in good field position. Then after the call, Adam Vinatieri still had to kick the ball 45 yards through driving snow to tie the game.
New England has proven it can beat any team. The Patriots have replaced their image as a soft team to one built on guts, hard work and strength in the midst of adversity. Their quarterback coach died. They lost their starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, to injury in the second game. Coach Bill Belichick had to stick his neck out in support of Brady and to get rid of Terry Glenn.
Such moves could have led to a divided locker room, but Belichick never wavered. As a testament to his advancement as a head coach, he kept things under control. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi told me he didn't always agree with Belichick, but he respected his decisions. This team of castoffs -- players such as Brown, David Patten and Antowain Smith -- has bought into Belichick's approach and has executed at championship level.
Last week was a typical Patriots performance. They started slow and looked ugly. Brady struggled at the start. But they battled and hung around. The old Patriots would have found a way to lose. The new Patriots found a way to win. Winning in the snow fell in line with the adversity they faced. It wouldn't have made sense if they would have beaten the Raiders in 70-degree weather.
The Steelers got to this point the hard way as well. They had to dethrone the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh did it by out-executing, out-coaching and physically and mentally out-playing the Ravens. The Steelers were quicker, faster and more intimidating. The baton in the AFC Central has passed from Jacksonville to Tennessee to Baltimore and now to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have assumed the dominant role.
Nothing symbolizes the Steelers' success more than coach Bill Cowher's decision to keep Kordell Stewart as his quarterback. When critics called for Stewart's ouster, Cowher stuck with him. Stewart and receiver Plaxico Burress were the NFL's two most improved players this season.
Cowher's other great moves were making Mike Mularkey the offensive coordinator and hiring quarterbacks coach Tom Clements to watch Stewart every day. While the offense previously looked helter skelter, this season it has had a more definitive plan. They kept things simple and executed it. A great defense can help carry a team, but the quarterback still has to make plays, something Stewart has done all season in Mularkey's offense.
There is no weakness in Pittsburgh's game. The Steelers have the best offensive line, the best defense, the best running game, a Pro Bowl quarterback and running back, and one of the league's most underrated players in receiver Hines Ward. Let's not forget that the Steelers lost tight end Mark Bruener. They have been playing without a tight end for two months. Plus, Jerome Bettis missed the last six games. Yet Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Amos Zereoue filled in for Bettis, demonstrating the Steelers' great depth and understanding of each player's role.
Sunday's game should be much closer than people think. It will be like a 15-round fight, with one team wearing out the other near the end with some body blows. The score won't be 40-10. On paper, the Patriots might look out manned, but paper gets wadded up and thrown in the trash during the playoffs.
Here are the keys for both teams:
Three keys for the Patriots
1. Force a kicking game. In terms of confidence, Vinatieri is at the top of the heap, and Kris Brown is just hovering. At Heinz Field, he still has troubles. The players rally around Brown, but New England should do everything it can to force a field-position game that would come down to field goals. Psychologically, it could be the Patriots' advantage. You have to play to a team's weakness. The Patriots need to force the Steelers to kick field goals in the red zone.
2. Protect Brady from early hits. Brady is a tough, strong player, but Pittsburgh likes to set a physical tempo early in the game. The Pittsburgh defense is far stronger and more physical and aggressive than the Raiders' defense. The Raiders got after Brady early but let him hang around. Later, Brady got on fire and ended up with a big game. The Patriots have to do everything they can with their max protection and play-calling to keep Brady upright. Against Baltimore, the Steelers were able to hit Elvis Grbac and force him into errant throws and turnovers. The Patriots should watch the tape of that game and not allow it to happen to them.
3. Control the linebackers. The Patriots are strong up front, anchored by center Damien Woody. But slowing down the Steelers' linebackers will be paramount. They are physical, hard to block and athletic, flowing sideline to sideline. Linebackers Joey Porter and Kendrell Bell put two hits on Grbac that led to interceptions.
Three keys for the Steelers
1. Limit Brown touches. Troy Brown is a difference-maker who must be controlled in the passing game and on special teams. He is the one Patriot player who can change the course of the game. Pittsburgh's linebackers have to look for him on short routes. Limiting his touches will play into their favor. The Steelers' linebackers are physical and fast enough to deal with tight end Jermaine Wiggins, who caught 10 balls last week. On punts, they must either cover the kick or kick it away from Brown.
2. Keep it simple. In every facet, stay simple. The Steelers should make only minimal changes. What they have been doing all season has been right. Why change now? The Patriots' offense won't score 50 points, and their defense will give up some yards. Pittsburgh doesn't need to do anything drastic. Teams that are desperate and overmatched need to do something. New England may need a few offbeat plays like a reverse pass to change the flow of the game, but Pittsburgh isn't overmatched in any area. The Steelers need to line up and play.
3. Attack Brady. That may mean with a five-man rush, or a three-man rush with a safety or corner blitz. I like Antowain Smith's guts and how he has come back from being out of shape in training camp. But I don't think the Patriots can push Pittsburgh around in the run game. So they will target Brady and come after him with their league-leading pass rush, which generated 55 sacks.