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Savran: Patriots' will can't be ignored

Saturday, January 26, 2002

It's the year remembered most unpleasantly. And, in some ways, it is not unlike connecting a popular song with the first time you fell in love ... and then got dumped by the same love of your life.

Never again can you hear that song without remembering the pain. Yes, 1994 was the year Steelers fans fell in love with a team they thought would lead them to their first Super Bowl trip in 15 seasons.

Then, they got dumped.

Hard.

The actual date of that unceremonious heartbreak was Jan. 15, 1995.

It was the most difficult home defeat since Larry Seiple extended the Miami Dolphins' unbeaten streak just one week after the Immaculate Reception resulted in the most exhilarating home victory.

So now, fans are using the San Diego nightmare to remind themselves of what can happen to heavily favored teams.

Even at home.

But there's another date more relevant to the proceedings tomorrow: Jan. 14, 1996.

As a preface, once the six AFC playoff teams were in place, fans and media spent much time searching for and then analyzing the holes of the other five. Then, projecting potential playoff opponents and matching them against the Steelers, each and every one of the five came up short.

But one must also consider that once a team gets to the AFC championship game, some of those holes must have been filled. Or at least camouflaged by strengths, or they wouldn't have gotten this far.

It extends beyond X's and O's.

It's at least as much about the ABC's of psychology. And that's why the title game against Indianapolis is much more significant than the one against San Diego.

The Colts that year were a very mediocre 9-7. Most seasons, 9-7 gets you a middle-of-the-pack draft choice. Seldom does it get you into the playoffs, and almost never does it get you a step from the Super Bowl.

But by the time they arrived at Three Rivers with Jim Harbaugh, and without Marshall Faulk, they were no longer colts. They were Secretariat.

No matter their obvious shortcomings, they were, as they say, feeling 10 feet tall and bulletproof. They had won two playoff games, including a win against the top seeded Kansas City Chiefs, who had compiled a 13-3 regular-season record.

Beginning to strike a familiar chord?

The Colts lost to the Steelers, 20-16, that day. But they easily could have won. In fact, it says here, they should have won.

They were no longer the 9-7-lucky-to-make-the-playoffs-Indianapolis Colts. By the time they reached that AFC championship game, in their minds they were the 1985 Chicago Bears. They believed they could win. And almost did.

Don't you suppose the New England Patriots are feeling the same?

Unfortunately for them, it doesn't figure to be enough.

The Patriots still out-hole the Steelers significantly. While Bill Belichick is a master defensive strategist, and you can be sure he'll take some things away, there's no strategy against brute force. And unless New England's ever-changing fronts paralyze the Steelers' offensive line, they should power the Patriots off the line of scrimmage.

Conversely, while Antowain Smith is a very nice back and has had a very nice season, he's the straight-ahead, north-and-south kind of runner the Steelers generally hold directionless.

The Patriots' offensive line is large, but the quickness of the Steelers' front seven will destroy their blocking angles. Got to catch 'em before you can block 'em.

Even when you factor in the inclement weather conditions, Smith barely gained 3 yards a pop against the tissue-paper Oakland Raiders' run defense. That forced Tom Brady to put the ball in the air 52 times. No one, not even Kurt Warner, passes 52 times and lives to tell about it in the next playoff round.

If Brady is forced to put it up 50 times, the over/under on the combined sack/interception total is eight.

New England's chances to ground the Steelers' charter to New Orleans would seem to be on the skinny side. There will be no '94 letdown. That group had too many mouths and not enough minds. They might have had better players, but this is a better team.

But if the Patriots somehow manage to make tomorrow the new most devastating Steelers defeat, they, like the Colts six years ago, will have willed their holes shut through their own belief.

And you might take note of what's playing on the radio. Because if the Steelers should lose, you'll never get that tune out of your head.


Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat at 6:30 p.m. weekdays on Fox Sports Pittsburgh

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