A switch had been made under cover of fog. How else to explain the New England Patriots' role-reversing 28-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff? While the Patriots came into the game with a defense made up of competent unknowns, their Steelers counterparts arrived in Foxboro with a nickname—Blitzburgh—and a recent record of violence against quarterbacks.
In a wild-card playoff game on Dec. 29, Pittsburgh sacked Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh four times, broke one of his teeth and opened a gash on his chin that required 15 stitches. But on Sunday, in a fog so dense that Foxboro Stadium resembled the inside of Hunter S. Thompson's head, the Patriots played like the Steelers while the Steelers played like the old Patsies.
Defending AFC champion Pittsburgh had the NFL's second-best sack total (51) during the regular season, but it was the New England front seven (33 sacks in 1996) that generated the most heat on Sunday. The Steelers' quarterback combination of Mike Tomczak and Kordell (Slash) Stewart, rather than Patriots passer Drew Bledsoe, spent the afternoon serving as crash-test dummies.
Afterward, the New England defenders, an unheralded but steadily improving bunch, revealed their motivation: They were tired of hearing about, as defensive end Willie McGinest put it, "Slash this and Blitzburgh and the Bus [ Steelers running back Jerome Bettis]."
Complementing their righteous indignation was a bold game plan in which the Patriots stunted and blitzed as aggressively as the Steelers usually do. New England also had luck on its side: The Bus had a bad wheel. Bettis suffered a tear in his right groin against the Colts and was listed as questionable for the Patriots game.
Last Thursday night he limped into his local Hooters restaurant to check out, among other things, the national championship game between Florida and Florida State. When a group of businessmen nearby lit cigars, Bettis, who is asthmatic, asked to be seated elsewhere. The waitress instead reseated the smokers, to whom Bettis apologized. "I would have moved," he said.
"Oh, no," replied one man. "We wouldn't want you to aggravate your groin."
New England's defense was less solicitous, limiting Bettis to 43 inconsequential yards on 13 carries. Pittsburgh's quarterbacks were similarly ineffective. Tomczak completed 16 of 29 passes for 110 yards and two interceptions, and Stewart went 0 for 10, providing not his usual spark but rather a definitive answer to the question his fans have posed to Steelers coach Bill Cowher all season: Why don't you make Slash the starter?
Far more surprising than the flat performance of Pittsburgh's offense was the sight of Steelers defenders on then-heels, missing tackles, wandering around in a fog in the fog. The NFL's second-ranked defense against the run was overrun. New England running back Curtis Martin's 166 rushing yards on 19 carries included a 78-yarder that put the Patriots on top 21-0 just five minutes into the second quarter. With such a comfortable lead, New England was able to stay out of predictable situations on offense, and thus out of Blitzburgh. As Steelers outside linebacker Chad Brown said of the Patriots, "They became the dictators."
Actually, the dictators will square off in he AFC Championship Game this Sunday, when New England hosts the Jacksonville jaguars, whose coach, the autocratic Tom Coughlin, was once an assistant under the Patriots' despotic Bill Parcells. Both men lad ample opportunity to frown, scream and carry on in tyrannical fashion when their teams met in September. The Patriots won 28-25 in overtime but only after coughing up a 22-0 lead and surrendering two Hail Mary passes.