PITTSBURGH -- In the post-game press session following his third conference title in three appearances, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick twice assigned the adjective "great" to a Pittsburgh Steelers team his own charges has just laid waste. He also referred to the "tremendous" season enjoyed by the Philadelphia Eagles, the franchise he will face in Super Bowl XXXIX in two weeks.
So if he had just one word to capture the essence of his own team, Belichick was asked on Sunday evening after a 41-27 smackdown of the Steelers, what might it be?
For a man who had been so lavish in heaping praise on the team that the Patriots had just vanquished, so generous in his assessment of the club New England is favored to defeat to earn a third Super Bowl win in four years, Belichick, who raised his personal playoff record to a sterling 9-1, became all but tongue-tied as he tried to analyze the assemblage quietly celebrating in the visitor's locker room.
Even in a quick follow-up query, when Belichick was gently prodded about the attributes of his own team, he wasn't about to confer greatness upon it.
And here is, folks, the best thing about a New England team that figures to be the closest thing to a dynasty any of us will witness in an era when franchises aren't supposed to be able to sustain success: None of the Pats players, at least the ones surveyed in the locker room and on the way to their waiting buses, were about to readily accept the seemingly deserved mantle of greatness, either.
"I would give us an 'OK' for now," veteran nose tackle Keith Traylor said. "We haven't won anything yet, at least not this year. And for me, well, I don't have a ring with this team yet, so I just see us as a bunch of OK players trying to come together and play as good as we can. I agree with (Belichick) that we've still got something to prove."
Had the AFC championship game been a court proceeding, however, any jury would have concluded that the Patriots presented more than enough evidence to suggest they are a great team. They could have, truth be told, trotted out Exhibits A through Z to make the case. But it was one early piece of evidence on Sunday evening, New England's ability to slow a Steelers running attack which statistically ranked No. 1 in the NFL in the regular season, that offered the most telling bit of testimony about Belichick's team.
Trailing 3-0 midway through the first quarter, the Steelers faced a fourth-and-inches from the New England 39-yard line. Bettis attempted to squeeze the necessary yardage off left guard, but Traylor had collapsed the inside, essentially relocating the line of scrimmage a yard deep in the Pittsburgh backfield. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin fought off a block and stood up Bettis, forcing a fumble that was recovered by fellow 'backer Mike Vrabel.
On the very next snap, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady connected with Deion Branch for a 60-yard touchdown pass on a brilliantly conceived play that drew Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu out of the middle of the field, and left Deshea Townsend alone in single coverage against the fleet New England wideout.
It was the first of what would be four receptions for 116 yards for Branch, who also had a 45-yard catch among the damage he enacted on the Pittsburgh secondary. But like most of his teammates, Branch was quick to note that the play was set up by the key defensive stop that preceded it.
"Our defense," said Branch, "kept coming up big all night. Every area was out there and making plays. Starting with the guys up front on that fourth-and-one play."
The defense designed by Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel, who will now have to wait until after the Super Bowl to be officially named as the Cleveland Browns coach, typically revolves around the play of its linebackers. As noted by ESPN.com last week in a feature on the four linebacker corps in the conference championship contests, the Pats linebackers are hybrids, big guys who can run, and who perform multiple functions. It is a tribute to the linebacker corps' excellence that the group usually overshadows the New England line.
But the stuff of Bettis on the fourth-down play, keyed by Traylor's penetration, turned the spotlight on what is arguably the Patriots' most anonymous unit. And pulled center stage, because of its assigned task in slowing the Pittsburgh running game, the New England line finally assumed more than a just a co-starring role.
Just before the fourth-down play, Belichick had meandered about 10 yards on the field, to signal in the defense with a series of gestures. Asked about what defensive call Belichick screamed to his charges, Colvin laughed, and noted: "I think he gave us the 'stop 'em' signal. Works every time, huh?"
Well, for most part, it did, thanks in no small part to the Pats' not-so-small defensive linemen, who combined for 15 tackles, a number that really doesn't begin to approximate the group's collective performance. Not surprisingly, the New England linebackers were terrific, with the four starters combining for 25 stops. Strong safety Rodney Harrison, who left the game several times to be treated for lingering leg and shoulder injuries, had nine tackles and an 87-yard interception return for a touchdown that severely blunted a would-be Steelers rally late in the first half.
Quelling a Pittsburgh running game that had amassed 221 yards in the Steelers' regular-season dismantling of the Pats on Halloween Day, however, was for the most part the province of the New England defensive front.
The Steelers did manage to hammer out 163 yards. But discount the 45 yards that rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had on five carries (including three well-executed draw plays), and the Pittsburgh rushing total was actually fairly pedestrian. The three tailbacks rushed 32 times for 118 yards, an average of just 3.7 yards per attempt. Bettis broke free for a 25-yard romp off left tackle in the second half, but the running room he found on that play was definitely a rare occurrence.
"Hey, it wasn't exactly a mystery what they were going to come in and try to do, not after the way they ran the ball against us in (the regular-season) game," said Pats defensive end Ty Warren, who had eight tackles. "We knew we had to keep them from getting downhill on us. You let them get any kind of momentum going and it's tough to put the genie back in the bottle, you know?"
Instead, the Pats bottled up the Steelers and the lack of a running game, coupled with the egregious errors committed by Roethlisberger were more than enough to doom Pittsburgh and send coach Bill Cowher to his fourth home defeat in five conference championship games. The Steelers, particularly a few of their offensive linemen, seemed stunned by the inability of the running attack.
But unlike the regular-season contest, in which the Steelers line absolutely imposed its will, it was the Patriots trenchmen who dominated this time. Warren was superb. Rookie nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the first-round choice who alternates with Traylor, had just one tackle but clearly beat up on All-Pro center Jeff Hartings. End Jarvis Green, starting in place of the injured Richard Seymour, who missed his second straight playoff game with a strained knee ligament, posted five tackles and his team's lone sack.
The Steelers line, the only blocking unit among this year's 12 playoff qualifiers in which all five players started every regular-season outing, was flat-out manhandled at times. Of course, Belichick wasn't about to admit it, and neither were his players.
"The biggest thing we did," said Traylor, "was to come out and match their intensity. We didn't want them to start feeling it, you know, and let the snowball pick up steam like the last time we played them. So, yeah, I think we went and slugged it out with them and let them know this wasn't going to be the same this time around. But it's not like this was our best game or anything. It was, you know … ."
Yeah, we know, it was OK.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.