Steelers aim higher

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- The leaves have yet to turn on the tree-lined hills in and around Steel City and the first snowfall seems months away.

So to is the Super Bowl, a rationalization the Pittsburgh Steelers are trying to pound into their heads today.

Yes, they play the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in a tasty Week 3 matchup.

Yes, their sophomore quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has yet to lose a regular-season game in his career.

And yes, the Steelers would love to repeat the beating they laid on the Patriots last Halloween, a win that snapped New England's NFL-record 18-game unbeaten streak.

But the football-loving fans here and the team they worship would trade it all for a reverse of the messy ending to an otherwise remarkable year. When the Patriots returned in January for the AFC Championship, the Steelers were taken to school, making such a memorable 15-1 season forgettable.

"It was a tough lesson to learn," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said this week. "I hated to learn that way. I wish I would have learned a different way, but it happened."

There is some truth to the notion that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Pittsburgh. Unfortunately for Steelers faithful, in both the 2001 and 2004 seasons, the Patriots won the AFC Championship in their town.

So if the Steelers are trying to play down the importance of today's game and their status as three-point favourites, perhaps it's for good reason.

"We're still hyped, but it's just a regular-season game," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "The outcome of this game isn't going to decide who is going to the Super Bowl."

Steelers coach Bill Cowher is no dummy either, pointing out that his team's impressive 2-0 start is not all it seems. Easy wins over lightweights Tennessee and Houston by a combined score of 61-14 were little more than a scrimmage for a Steelers team so strong in so many places.

"It has been a while since I've seen a more dominating team than in the first two games," Pats coach Bill Belichick said. "They've been pretty much flawless. The games haven't even been competitive."

They've done it without Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley in the backfield because of injuries but haven't missed a step with replacement Fast Willie Parker. And Roethlisberger has erased suggestions he would regress in his second season, looking sharp behind his strong offensive line and leading the league in quarterback ratings.

The Patriots, meanwhile, will have their dominance tested. After getting manhandled by the Carolina Panthers last week, the champs risk falling to 1-2, which would match their loss total for each of the past two seasons.

To avoid it, the New Englanders will need the struggles of the Corey Dillon-led running game to end. The Steelers took advantage of it in their 34-20 regular-season win last year then brought the heat on quarterback Tom Brady, who was picked off twice in arguably the worst showing of his career.

"We're going to try to stop the run and make Brady pass it," Porter said. "I think he can be rattled. We've rattled him before, we can rattle him again."

Of course, as Porter knows, the Patriots have been known to rattle opponents well.


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