Thu, Jan 20, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Steelers generate novel excuses for poor performance

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PITTSBURGH

Local wisdom has it that the only thing keeping the hometown Steelers from the Super Bowl is a thin layer of leather and nylon.

Those in Pittsburgh who are already weary of matchups and game plans seem to believe that the American Football Conference championship will be decided by which quarterback wears the best gloves.

Who has more flexibility with his fingers? Who has better traction on his palms? Who has Isotoners and who has mittens? These have become the new questions as the Steelers and the New England Patriots prepare to meet in frigid conditions Sunday night at Heinz Field.

Part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area may prefer that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger abandon the gloves altogether and tear apart the Patriots with his bare hands. There is a feeling in Pittsburgh that the gloves were partly to blame for the two interceptions Roethlisberger threw against the Jets on Saturday night.

That New England quarterback Tom Brady also wears gloves at times in frosty weather but did not do so in Sunday's snowy victory over Indianapolis makes for an even more compelling back-and-forth.

Elastic will be an important theme Sunday night because, with Roethlisberger and Brady, something has to give.

Roethlisberger has never lost an NFL start (14-0), and Brady has never lost an NFL playoff game (7-0). Brady's most forgettable postseason performance, in January 2002, was when the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC championship game at Heinz Field. He left in the second quarter with an injured ankle.

The Steelers, staying as far as possible from the Mike Vanderjagt School of Projections, insist that the Patriots deserve to be favorites. Brady, after all, has proven himself in the playoffs, and Roethlisberger has not. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher has lost three AFC championship games at home, and New England's Bill Belichick has won two Super Bowls.

"I think we have been prepared to play every game," Cowher said of those three defeats. "When you go into the playoffs, you are playing quality teams and you can't turn the ball over and squander scoring opportunities. Those things have a way of staring you in the face at the end of a football game."

But recently, the coaches and the quarterbacks have been equally successful. Cowher has won his last 15 games, and Belichick has won his last 13 games when facing a quarterback for the second time in a season. He will be getting another shot at Roethlisberger, who pounded the Patriots on Oct. 31 in a 34-20 Steelers triumph, his signature victory.

From then on, Roethlisberger was basically treated with kid gloves. When he went 17 of 30 with those two interceptions on Saturday against the Jets, his struggles were largely attributed to an injured right thumb. But when he insisted that the thumb was fine, speculation immediately shifted to the gloves.

Cowher said Tuesday that Roethlisberger had told him that the gloves were not "fitting right," adding fodder to the five-fingered debate.

"I'm not going to sit there and tell him what to do in regards to that," Cowher said. "Just throw the ball to a receiver, with or without a glove. I don't want to get into all the idiosyncrasies. If the guy's open, just throw it to him, and whatever that entails, that's what you wear."

Roethlisberger has gone almost his entire rookie season without hearing a hint of criticism, a remarkable accomplishment for a starting quarterback.

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