PITTSBURGH – Nobody beats Brady and Belichick in a big game, not even Big Ben.
Tom Brady (search) and Bill Belichick (search) were an unstoppable combination again for the New England Patriots, exposing all of the Steelers' weaknesses to end their 15-game winning streak and win the AFC championship 41-27 Sunday night.
Brady gave the inexperienced Ben Roethlisberger (search) a lesson in quarterbacking a championship game, throwing two touchdown passes — one to Deion Branch that gave New England a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
Belichick upstaged can't-win-the-big-one Steelers coach Bill Cowher, improving to 9-1 as a playoffs coach and matching Vince Lombardi for the best postseason record in NFL playoff history.
Brady has a record of his own: 8-0 as a postseason quarterback, bettering Troy Aikman's 7-0 record at the start of his playoffs career.
"I'm just so proud of these players. Our team has played well in big games and this was a huge one," Belichick said.
Now, the defending champions will play the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla. New England was installed as an early 6-to-6 1/2-point favorite.
The Eagles ended their three-game losing streak in the NFC championship game by beating Atlanta 27-10 earlier Sunday.
The Patriots can become the first team to win three Super Bowls in four seasons since Dallas did it between the 1992-95 seasons.
This game was a near-replay of Pittsburgh's breakthrough 34-20 win Oct. 31 that ended New England's record 21-game winning streak. Again, an under-pressure quarterback kept making mistakes as a team seized a 24-3 lead in the first half — only this time it was the rookie, not the cool-as-can-be Brady doing so.
So much for that all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl, too, in what would have been a therapeutic matchup for a state that, before Sunday, had seen its two teams lose six of seven conference championship games in the last 11 seasons.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, they couldn't throw a red flag from the sidelines to overturn this replay, which saw Roethlisberger throw three costly interceptions in his first loss in 15 NFL starts.
"It wasn't a great game on my part, but I learned an awful lot this season," said Roethlisberger, who failed to become the first rookie QB to lead his team to the Super Bowl. "We had a great season, but there are a lot of people — some in that locker room — that now think" it's a disappointment.
Staying away from turnovers is "important when you play the really tough teams," Brady said.
"It's important to protect the ball and that's what we did," he said.
Brady was 14-of-21 for 207 yards and no interceptions to Roethlisberger's 14-of-24 for 226 yards and two scores.
For the Steelers, it was their fourth loss in five AFC championship games at home since 1995 under Cowher and, at least psychologically, the worst. With a franchise-record winning streak that brought back memories of their four-time Super Bowl champions of the 1970s a seemingly can't-be-beaten rookie who had energized his teammates and his city, they were certain they had what it took to get back to the Super Bowl for only the second time in 25 years.
Instead, it had just the same familiar look as those home-field losses in the January 1995, 1998 and 2002 AFC title games, the last one also to the Patriots as a 10-point favorite.
The Steelers publicly toed the Cowher-dictated corporate line, saying they understood New England's role as a 3-point favorite despite their 15-game winning streak and NFL-best 16-1 record. Privately, they were motivated by the perceived slight and linebacker Joey Porter promised they wouldn't flop in a title game again.
Then, they went out and flopped, generating boos from their normally adoring crowd even before the Patriots led 24-3 by halftime. Only an hour earlier, many of those same fans deliriously twirled Terrible Towels during a feverish and colorful pregame display.
New England didn't have an injured Corey Dillon during that Halloween game, and the presence of the 1,635-yard rusher was supposed to make a big difference in the rematch, but he had a below-average 73 yards. Instead it was Branch, also injured and out of the first game, who made the big plays with a touchdown catch, 23-yard touchdown run and 45-yard reception that set up David Givens' 9-yard TD catch that made it 17-3.
Branch got behind cornerback Deshea Townsend for a 60-yard scoring pass on the play after Jerome Bettis fumbled on a fourth-and-1 at the Patriots' 39, and it was 10-0 New England halfway through the first quarter. It was Bettis' second fumble in 10 carries over two games after he went more than a season without fumbling.
Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal — matching the longest in 4-year-old Heinz Field — following Roethlisberger's first interception, on Pittsburgh's opening drive.
The Steelers wanted to pound big backs Bettis and Duce Staley like they did in outrushing New England 221-5 in the earlier game. Instead, New England's early leads forced them to do exactly what they didn't want: ask Roethlisberger to win it for them. Instead, he threw an interception that Rodney Harrison returned 87 yards for a TD that put New England up 24-3.
That was way too much to ask even of Big Ben against a team, an opposing quarterback and a coach like Belichick.
That wasn't the worst of it in a half that exposed all the flaws Pittsburgh adeptly covered up all season: Roethlisberger's lack of big-game experience and a suspect secondary. Roethlisberger threw two interceptions, one for a score, in last week's great escape 20-17 overtime win against the Jets, only to make same kind of mistakes against a better team — with predictable results.
Pittsburgh tried to get back in it in the second half on Bettis' touchdown run and Roethlisberger's TD pass to Hines Ward, but a replay reversal led to Dillon's 25-yard TD run and a 31-10 New England lead.
Pittsburgh could have gotten to within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but was turned aside on three straight plays after having first-and-goal at the 5 and settled for Jeff Reed's field goal.