Ben up against mastermind

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:37 AM ET

As the herds strolled over the Roberto Clemente bridge toward Heinz Field on Saturday, the fashion statement of choice was Steelers black with a big No. 7.

Loyal and in love as they are with their rookie quarterback, Pittsburgh fans aren't the only ones with Ben Roethlisberger's number, however.

As we speak, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his team of football geniuses are working on a master plan to make Big Ben break.

You can start your analysis of this Sunday's AFC Championship by forgetting the 34-20 loss the Patriots suffered right there in the Steel City on Halloween night.

Forget as well the manufactured hint of concern Belichick expressed when he says "we got killed" by the Steelers.

What you can believe is that this one will be different. This time, with a Super Bowl trip to Jacksonville as the pot, there will be no glass jaw for the Steelers to shatter.

As humbling as that loss may have been because it snapped the Patriots' NFL record 21-game winning streak there are explanations.

The biggest was the absence of Patriots running back Corey Dillon who, as if it was needed, gives the Super Bowl champions a dimension they didn't have a year ago.

The Steelers did dominate in Rd. 1, but it was one of those odd games where momentum became a mountain even the seasoned Patriots couldn't scale.

As the Colts found out and the Steelers will learn in what promises to be a physical battle this week, the more meaningful the challenge, the more resolute the Pats become.

"They ran it down our throats," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said of the Steelers following after beating the dead horse that is the Colts. "They were able to control the clock. If you can't stop the run, you can't win in this league."

As they always seem to do, Belichick and defensive co-ordinator Romeo Crennel will find a fix for that.

And now the Steelers will need to find an answer for Dillon, who ran for 1,635 yards and likely would have captured the NFL rushing title had he played against the Steelers.

Don't discount the vulnerability of both Roethlisberger and his coach, Bill Cowher, either.

On Saturday night, the quarterback struggled with his throws and looked every inch the rookie that he is. The Steelers beat the New York Jets with a combination of lady luck and dominating defence.

The past few years Belichick has buried himself so deep inside the head of quarterbacks such as Manning and Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe that the challenge of Roethlisberger may actually seem facile by comparison.

As for the jut-jawed Cowher, for all his division titles and long run of success in Pittsburgh, the coach has a knack of coming up small in the biggest games.

Twice since 1997, the Steelers have lost the AFC title game in their own stadium. One of those was to the Patriots three years ago, a game which set New England up for its Super Bowl win in New Orleans.

When the No. 1 seed meets No. 2, it's always an intriguing matchup -- which holds true in the NFC as well where a miserable season for that conference has been saved by the Eagles-Falcons finale.

Popular opinion has it that the Super Bowl champion will come from the AFC once again, however.

The Steelers, with their one-loss season and as physical as they are, likely will put up more of a fight than the Colts.

Belichick was trying to plead for underdog status yesterday, citing the 21-point loss and the Steelers winning 15 in a row.

Even the biggest Big Ben fan might have trouble buying that line anymore.


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