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Steelers Steelers' trash-talking, surprise betting line theme of 1st game

Monday, September 09, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BOSTON -- It was hot and muggy all over New England yesterday. The weather warmed up as well.

The Patriots and their fans, including those in the news media, are in a tither that the defending Super Bowl champions are 3-point underdogs to the Steelers for a 9 p.m. kickoff to the season today in nearby Foxboro, Mass.

 
 

The Opener

Who: Steelers at Patriots

When: 9 p.m., Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.

TV: WTAE

Radio: WDVE-FM (102.5), WBGG-AM (970)

   
 

That's one theme. The other: They cannot believe the Steelers continue to talk smack about the Patriots, about how they want revenge, about how they were the better team and lost a fluke AFC championship game to New England in January, about what they will do to the poor Patriots tonight.

Little of that is true, but it was a theme the Patriots carried into the AFC championship game in January, and they have done it again. The Steelers have talked no more than the Patriots the past week, but that's not the perception here. The fans and news media continue to hammer away at the circumstances leading up to the AFC championship game. When Steelers Coach Bill Cowher revealed he told his players to spend one day making the oftentimes distracting plans to go to the Super Bowl, the Patriots regarded it as a slap in the face.

How could they make plans for the Super Bowl when they still have to play the AFC championship game? In the meantime, the Patriots quietly did the same thing, they just did not admit to it. What did anyone think, that the Patriots won in Pittsburgh Sunday, flew home to Boston, called up USAirways and said, "get us a charter flight to New Orleans tomorrow?" Did their players come home that night and say, "Pack a bag, honey, we're flying to the Super Bowl tomorrow? And, by the way, who needs tickets?"

That's what happened in January, and whether it was the psychological warfare Bill Belichick played on his team, or the confusing defenses that confounded the Steelers or the two touchdowns they scored in the kicking game, it worked for the Patriots.

The question is, can this they-don't-respect-us routine work again tonight?

It won't be for a lack of trying.

"There was bad blood there last year," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said, "and I'm sure there's bad blood this year. We let our play on the field do the talking for us. What do we need to say?"

The Patriots might be the only defending Super Bowl team to open the next season at home as underdogs. But no matter what happens tonight, it won't bring back the AFC championship the Steelers could not win Jan. 27. It also ultimately render little to determine who will go to the Super Bowl from the AFC next January.

"I'll be honest with you, we want New England," safety Lee Flowers said. "But whatever happens, New England still has the ring. We can't go back to 2001 and win the championship. The only thing we can concentrate on right now is this season."

Toward that end, Cowher and his players have talked about getting off to a fast start, something that has eluded them the past two seasons and six of their past nine. They play the Oakland Raiders Sunday night in Heinz Field. But getting off to fast starts can be overrated as well. The Steelers started 0-1 last season and the Patriots lost their first two games and three of their first four. The previous time the Steelers reached the Super Bowl, they started the 1995 season 3-4.

It could mean nothing -- or everything.

"Yes and no," tight end Mark Bruener explained. "Yes, because the winner of this game is not necessarily going to the Super Bowl. But the winner can go to the Super Bowl. They have something we want. This is a new year and this is going to be the first step for us to try to achieve our goal. And they want the same goal, again."

The loser tonight might get another chance in the playoffs, but the Steelers will never get the chance they had Jan. 27.

"The best thing about this sport, there is no payback," tackle Wayne Gandy said. "If it were a boxing match, there could be some payback because I can come back and take your belt and punish you. But you have the ring and there's nothing I can do about that. It's one of those things, once it's over, it's over for that year and everyone starts new."

Which brings them to the game tonight. Neither team really starts new. They each return 20 of 22 starters from last year. But both do have significant changes. For the Patriots, they have thrown their support behind young Brady, and Brady was knocked out of the AFC title game early, who accounted for his team's only offensive touchdown when he threw a 11-yard scoring pass to David Patten in the second quarter. Bledsoe finished the game and was not intercepted.

The Steelers have made changes brought on by that game. Cowher fired his special teams coach, Jay Hayes, replaced him with Kevin Spencer and the Steelers have put more time and effort into that part of the game that blew up Jan. 27. They also have a new kicker, Todd Peterson.

There also has been a change in the image of New England Coach Bill Belichick. He has, since the Super Bowl, acquired "Genius" to his collection of sobriquets, which weren't quite so flattering when he coached the Cleveland Browns. He did devise the scheme that confused the Steelers so much Jan. 27 that they weren't able to run. The NFL's No. 1 rushing team managed 58 yards that game and 41 came from quarterback Kordell Stewart.

The Patriots, though, did not exactly shut down the Steelers at the pass. Stewart threw for 255 yards, completing 57 percent of his passes. He overthrew two balls in the fourth quarter that ended in interceptions, but until then did not have a bad game against one of the better secondaries in the league.

The Steelers believe they have the kind of balance now that if the Patriots want to stop the run, they can move confidently to throwing on them.

"Whatever's working is what we're going to do," Stewart said. "We're not going to force anything. If the defense is giving us the run, we're going to take it; if the defense is giving us the pass, we'll take that as well. We just have to be ready for whatever happens."

It's one grand opening for both teams, and one will get off to something it did not experience last year, a fast start. But that's all it can be.

"It's another game," Stewart said. "Granted, they were the Super Bowl champions. Congratulations. But that's over."


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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