So that's how good the Steelers were. Good enough to steamroll through the regular season to the tune of 15-1, including an October drubbing of the Patriots. But with the Super Bowl in the pot, they were only good enough to rally valiantly in a game long since lost to New England.
That's good. Just not good enough.
A better way to put it: So that's how good the Patriots are. A week after holding the best offense in the league to a field goal, they hang a 41 on the best defense, routing the Steelers in Pittsburgh 41-27 for the AFC championship.
In two weeks the Patriots will play the Philadelphia Eagles, who scarcely broke a sweat in stifling Michael Vick and manhandling the Atlanta Falcons at home for the NFC title, 27-10.
The matchup in Jacksonville, Fla., Feb. 6 is just what one hopes for in a Super Bowl. The best team in each conference will meet in a game with a clear favorite but with an upset not unthinkable. The early line has the Pats favored by six.
The Eagles represent the clearly inferior conference, one that sent two 8-8 teams to the playoffs and would almost certainly have sent three, one as a division champ, if the Falcons hadn't given the first string the day off in the last game of the year against the Seahawks. And the Eagles only went 13-3 despite the easy schedule that playing in a weak conference and a division with three 6-10 teams gave them. And they were hammered in November 27-3 by the same Steelers who just got hammered by the Patriots.
But two of those three losses came in the last two games, which the Eagles treated as exhibition games, letting the scrubs play. And those same Steelers that hammered the Eagles and got hammered by the Patriots? They hammered the Pats too, back in October.
The Eagles are a damn good team, balanced on offense and defense, much like the Patriots. Where Vick gives most teams fits, Philly had little trouble keeping him bottled up.
Discounting his token appearance in the regular-season finale and counting last week's playoff game against the Rams, Vick's per-game average was eight rushes for 67 yards, minus three sacks for 17 yards, a net of 50 yards on 11 touches. The Eagles held him to four carries for 26 yards and sacked him four times for 33, a net of minus-seven yards on eight touches.
And they stopped him without sacrificing anything else. The Falcons runners other than Vick, mostly Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett, averaged 4.5 yards a carry and 116 yards a game through last week. The Eagles held them to 73 yards on 3.3 yards a carry.
That meant the Falcons had to beat the Eagles -- who are sending three defensive backs to the Pro Bowl -- through the air. That probably wasn't going to happen even if stopping Atlanta's passing attack meant more than blanketing the Falcons' only real receiving threat, tight end Alge Crumpler.
The Falcons more or less stayed in the game for three and a half quarters because of their stout defense, but even on that side of the ball the Eagles played a solid, efficient game, rushing for 156 yards on 4.7 per carry, converting half of their third-down attempts, committing only two five-yard penalties and never turning over the ball.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb was more tidy than spectacular, but it was he, not Vick, who made the signature scramble of the day. With the Eagles facing a third and 11 at their own 38 midway through the second quarter, leading 7-3, McNabb faked a pitch left to Brian Westbrook and circled back into the pocket. He looked downfield and stepped up, but the protection broke down and Falcons tackle Ed Jasper was bearing down on him.
McNabb skipped to his right and slipped right through Jasper's arms. He took two steps forward, then leaped up and to his right to avoid a tackle by Patrick Kerney. Then he sprinted to his right and, with cornerback Jason Webster racing toward him, he fired a pass to Freddie Mitchell, who had come free on the right sideline two yards past the first-down stick. Mitchell made a diving catch for the first down.
On the next play, McNabb threw 45 yards downfield, into the wind, to Greg Lewis for a first and goal at the 4. The Eagles scored two plays later for a 14-3 lead.
And there's the difference between Vick, an exciting player and a wild card because he can always break free for a long run, and McNabb, who is that as well as a fine quarterback. McNabb can escape the rush, then make the throw.
More to the point for the Super Bowl is the difference between McNabb and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The way the Patriots played, Roethlisberger would have to have been pretty close to perfect, and even that might not have been enough. Instead, he was a talented but overmatched rookie throwing interceptions that killed his team's chances.
When the Steelers and Pats played on Halloween, the game was decided in the first quarter, when New England turned over the ball on consecutive offensive snaps, leading to a pair of Steelers touchdowns 16 seconds apart and turning a 7-3 game into a 21-3 runaway. The Pats weren't able to recover.
This game was a mirror image, with turnovers damaging the Steelers. Roethlisberger's first pass was high and behind receiver Antwaan Randle El, who tipped it into the air. It deflected into the hands of Patriots corner Asante Samuel, who bobbled it into the hands of teammate Eugene Wilson. The Patriots got one first down, then kicked a field goal.
On the next possession, Pittsburgh got a first down and then faced fourth and 1 at the Pats 39. They went for it and Jerome Bettis was thrown for a loss. (Bettis fumbled and the Patriots recovered, so it was officially a turnover, but New England was getting the ball whoever fell on it.) On the next play, Tom Brady hit Deion Branch in stride for a 60-yard touchdown pass and 10-0 with less than nine minutes gone. The Steelers were on the ropes.
But they recovered. A trade of punts left the Steelers with a short field, and they were able to get one first down and kick a field goal. After another pair of punts the Patriots took over on their 30. On first down from the 41 Brady teamed up with Branch on another perfectly thrown bomb, this one for 45 yards to the 14, Brown somehow holding on despite a bone-rattling hit from Troy Polamalu. Two plays later Brady hit David Givens for 17-3. The Steelers were on the canvas, blinking.
Still, back they came. Roethlisberger hit a pair of passes, handed off to Duce Staley four times and ran a quarterback draw for a first down as the Steelers drove from their own 23 to the New England 20. Then on first down, he threw a little eight-yard out to tight end Jerame Tuman. Rodney Harrison read the play perfectly, stepped in front of Tuman for the interception and ran untouched down the left sideline for an 87-yard touchdown and a 24-3 lead with 2:14 left in the half.
TKO. The Steelers would gamely pull to within 11 at 31-20 early in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots were never in danger. They were just too good. They made every play that had to be made on offense and defense, avoided every mistake that had to be avoided.
The Patriots were penalized once for five yards, a false start in the first quarter with the score already 10-0. They never turned the ball over, the only close call being an apparent third-quarter fumble by Givens at the Pittsburgh 40 that the Steelers, down 24-10, recovered. But the play was correctly overturned on replay and one play later, the Pats, thanks in part to an unnecessary-roughness penalty on the fumble, scored to restore their three-touchdown lead.
Brady made the Steelers pay for their fourth-down failure with that daggerlike first touchdown to Givens. He took only two sacks, seemed to make no bad decisions. With the Steelers trying to mount a comeback, he directed two drives of over five minutes in the fourth quarter, resulting in 10 points. He was everything his growing reputation and 8-0 career postseason record say he ought to have been.
There are people who know their football who say that Brady, in only his fourth year as a starter, is already among the great quarterbacks of all time, a 21st century Joe Montana. There are others who believe he's merely a good player who has benefited from a great system, which was also said of Montana.
I started in the latter camp -- though I was on the right side of what now seems like the ridiculous Brady vs. Drew Bledsoe debate three years ago -- and have drifted toward the former. I don't know about Brady being on the shortlist of all-time greats, but he's on his way, and he's certainly among the elite right now. Peyton Manning is the league's dominant quarterback, but if I were starting a team and could have either Manning or Brady, I'd have to be talked out of taking Brady.
The Super Bowl quarterback matchup of Brady vs. McNabb is the best since John Elway vs. Brett Favre seven long years ago. The Super Bowl shapes up as a dandy. We'll have to wade through 13 days of boring hype to get to it, but together we can do it.
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