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'Burgh goes for the glory today



Published: Sun, January 27, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Today should be a glorious one for Pittsburgh sports fans.

The feelings will be mixed in Cleveland.

For the fourth time in the past eight NFL seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the host for the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers, who play the New England Patriots today at 12:30 p.m. at Heinz Field, haven't done much with their advantage in those previous games.

Pittsburgh defeated the Indianapolis Colts 20-16 in the 1996 game to advance to Super Bowl XXX, but lost to the San Diego Chargers 17-13 in 1995 and to the Denver Broncos 24-21 in the 1997 title game.

Today, Coach Bill Cowher's troops are heavy favorites to defeat Bill Belichick's Patriots, and therein lies the rub for Cleveland fans.

In the old days (say up until 1995), a Cleveland fan's two favorite teams were the Browns and "whoever's playing the Steelers."

Today, the Steelers oppose Belichick, the last coach of the Art Modell era in Cleveland.

True, many fans don't begrudge the personality-challenged Belichick for the Browns' demise in 1995; after all, he was just part of Modell's hired help and was tossed into the trash as soon as the moving vans left for Baltimore.

Truth be told, Belichick landed on his feet as Bill Parcells hired him as defensive coordinator for the 1996 Patriots, the team that eliminated the Steelers in a fog-shrouded playoff game in Foxboro, Mass., in January, 1997.

Belichick followed "The Big Tuna" to New Jersey when he took over as coach of the New York Jets.

Once Parcells retired, Belichick landed his second head coaching job with the 2000 Patriots.

If the Patriots win today, Browns fans will relish that the Steelers won't be making their sixth Super Bowl appearance since 1975. But in order for that to happen, Belichick must succeed -- what a dilemma.

It's not that it couldn't happen -- if any of the four remaining teams in the playoffs is enjoying Cinderella status, it's the Patriots. Anyone who saw last Saturday's 16-13 overtime win over the Oakland Raiders in snowy Foxboro knows just how fortunate the Patriots are.

Right call: Mind you, the officials made the right call when they overturned a late "fumble" by Tom Brady by ruling that the quarterback had not yet tucked the ball into his body when cornerback Charles Woodson knocked it loose.

But don't be surprised to find the tuck rule changed this off-season so that when a quarterback uses his non-throwing arm to stop his passing motion, the tuck rule ends.

Had Brady's fumble been allowed, the Raiders would be the opponent at Heinz Field today.

Instead, Oakland lost in overtime when Patriots kicker Adam Vinateri booted a game-winner after an Oakland timeout. (Memo to Raiders coach Jon Gruden: don't try to freeze a kicker on a snowy field because it just allows the opponents time to clear the snow for steadier footing.)

Mistakes: Today's low-scoring game will be decided by mistakes -- the team that gives the ball away the most will lose.

Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart has had a splendid comeback season. Running back Jerome Bettis -- if he plays -- rarely fumbles.

But Belichick has made his reputation on strong defensive gameplans in big games. If anyone can find a way to exploit the Steelers' stars, it's Belichick.

The Steelers' run defense is the best in the NFL. That means Brady will have to play a near-flawless game while under pressure from the Steelers blitzers in order for the Patriots to keep the score close.

No matter who wins, some Cleveland fans will see it as a mixed blessing.

XTom Williams covers the NFL for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.




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