Patriots - Steelers
September 9, 2002 Gillette Stadium, Foxborough Ma

Curtain is brought down
Encore ends Steelers' act

By Michael Holley, Globe Columnist, 9/10/2002

FOXBOROUGH - So, is everyone ready for Sunday's opener? It will be Patriots-Jets at Giants Stadium. It will be Bill Belichick's past vs. Bill Belichick's present. It will be ...

Oh. I see. You thought the Patriots opened their 2002 season last night at Gillette Stadium. The Pittsburgh Steelers were here for what was supposed to be Game 1 of New England's Super Bowl defense. But this wasn't really the opener. This was an extension of the AFC Championship game.

The Steelers lost by a touchdown in January, but the defeat wasn't convincing enough for them. They kept insisting that the story had an epilogue, and they were right: They really aren't as good as we thought. They lost, 30-14, and showed the nation that their winter loss at Heinz Field was not accidental.

Shame on these guys if they don't spend the next few days apologizing. To their fans. To the Patriots. And especially to the rest of the country for making us listen to their whining, carping, and overall lack of class.

Kordell Stewart should apologize for suggesting that the best team didn't win in January (the stadium operations crew played the clip several times last night). Bill Cowher should apologize for allowing his team to spew such nonsense without backing it up. The entire team should gather around a squawk box and apologize to former kicker Kris Brown, the current Houston Texan who was supposedly part of the special-teams conspiracy to bring them down.

What a sad team. Trailing by 23 points with less than a minute to play, the Steelers made a mockery of themselves. They continued to call timeouts, desperately trying to make the game appear closer than it was. Stewart scored on a fourth-and-1 dive with one second remaining, a score that infuriated Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

No, this was not opening night. This was the unofficial closer to the Super Bowl season. The new stadium was initiated by owner Robert Kraft in a pregame ceremony that included fireworks and highlights from the Snow Game, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans. After that, strangely, it was time for the Super Bowl champs to prove themselves to Pittsburgh.

At least that was the national view. The Steelers entered the game as 3-point favorites and the trendy choice to win Super Bowl XXXVII. The visitors from Western Pennsylvania - home of fundamentalists such as Joe Montana and Mike Ditka - could learn a few things from the Patriots.

New England won this game because it was careful with the ball. The Patriots have turned the ball over once in their last two games against the Steelers; the Steelers have turned it over nine times in two games against the Patriots.

They won because Richard Seymour and Roman Phifer and Willie McGinest had good nights against the Pittsburgh offensive line. They won because rookie receiver Deion Branch had a nice block on safety Lee Flowers, and the block led to a Donald Hayes touchdown. They won because they used their heads. On one play, McGinest dropped Stewart and forced what appeared to be a fumble. Instead of scrambling for the ball, McGinest blocked for Phifer, who scooped the ball and ran to the end zone. Officials ruled that Stewart didn't fumble, but Belichick said afterward that he was impressed with McGinest's thinking.

It's funny that we're even having this discussion, isn't it? People around here knew about the soul of the Patriots last season. But the doubting Steelers didn't know. The Rams didn't know. Las Vegas didn't know. In the first exhibition game at Gillette, the Eagles didn't know, either. During warmups of that game, Philadelphia linebacker Ike Reese stood near the New England bench yelling, ''They're the Super Bowl champs? I don't believe it! I don't believe it!''

Doesn't it always work this way? The people who talk the most trash have little or nothing to offer when it's time to be productive. It's also ironic that Flowers declared Tampa Bay ''paper champions'' last season, but that's exactly what his team has become. We know that they would be fabulous talk-show hosts. Champions? Not yet.

The Patriots were able to keep Jerome Bettis from running off tackle, which is his comfort zone. They were able to force Stewart to be a reading quarterback when he is most comfortable running. They were also able to overcome two interference calls on Ty Law.

There is no more 2001 business left on the agenda. The stadium is open. The championship banner has been hung. The rings have been distributed. And Pittsburgh - we hope - has finally gone the Al Gore route and conceded the '01 conference championship.

The true season opener begins Sunday afternoon in New Jersey.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.


This story ran on page D7 of the Boston Globe on 9/10/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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