PITTSBURGH -- As Sunday dawned on the north shore of the Three Rivers, a celebration seemed imminent.
Shortly thereafter, had you asked any Steelers fan in the tailgate lots around Heinz Field before the AFC Championship Game what he or she thought the outcome would be, chances were good the answer would have included the words "St. Louis Rams" instead of "New England Patriots."
As in, how do you think the game will turn out?
"I think the Steelers will win if they can keep Marshall Faulk under control and get pressure on Kurt Warner."
The upcoming three-hour exercise inside the stadium, in the opinion of many Steelers' fans -- not to mention a faction of the Pittsburgh media -- was a mere formality to the real focus of the day -- the postgame victory celebration and making travel plans for New Orleans and Super Bowl XXXVI.
Instead, it will be Bill Belichick -- Bill Belichick? -- and the Patriots who will be making the trip to the Crescent City for this sport's biggest game.
Bad question: When Sheryl Crow was introduced at halftime, her greeting to the Heinz Field faithful was, "How ya doing, Pittsburgh?"
Considering the home team went into the locker room trailing 14-3, the question was almost laughable. Steeler fans were either shocked or stunned, but they were definitely ticked off, as evidenced by their chorus of boos that serenaded the Black and Gold in the tunnel.
Pittsburgh, a prohibitive favorite at kickoff, never seemed to be comfortable on offense, even as quarterback Kordell Stewart got loosened up in the second half.
New England effectively shut down the Steelers' running game, and Stewart was harried and hurried by the Patriots' many and varied combinations of blitzes and coverages.
In concert with those blitz packages was the ability of the New England cornerbacks and safeties to still cover Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward, the Steelers' two 1,000-yard receivers. More often than not, when Stewart did have time to throw, he couldn't find Burress or Ward open.
Pittsburgh's longest play of the first half, a long pass from Stewart to Ward, was overturned by replay.
No running game: The situation was exacerbated by the Steelers' inability to run the ball.
The Bus, Jerome Bettis, rushed just nine times and gained only 8 yards; his longest run was for 4 yards.
Stewart handed off 16 times; those attempts totaled just 19 yards.
Forced to win the game on his right arm, Stewart was 24 of 42 for 255 yards, but was picked off three times; twice in the final four minutes of the game, by Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy that helped the Patriots seal the victory.
Meanwhile, the Steelers defense never found a way to slow down New England's Troy Brown. Not from the time he returned a punt 55 yards for the first touchdown of the game.
He had eight receptions for 121 yards, including a long 28-yarder that led to the Patriots' second touchdown and the dominant halftime 14-3 lead.
But the 10-year man from Marshall University wasn't done. When he picked up a blocked field goal, then lateraled to teammate Antwan Harris for the Patriots' third touchdown and a 21-3 lead midway through the third quarter, it proved to be too much for the home team to overcome, despite two quick touchdowns late in the third quarter.
And so dusk settled, literally and figuratively, on the city and its football team. For the third time in four conference championship games during the Bill Cowher era, Steeler fans, players and coaches alike were left scratching their heads, pondering what might have been.
XRob Todor is sports editor of The Vindicator. Write to him at email@example.com.