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Pats’ Past: The 2004 AFC Championship Game

One of the most memorable games in Patriots franchise history.

Even though it originated in boxing, the term “heavyweight fight” has found its way into other other sports (and even beyond). Whether it is soccer or baseball, skiing or hockey, matchups between two powerful opponents are often dubbed with this moniker. Professional football is no different; there have been many heavyweight fights in the history of the NFL.

The 2004 AFC Championship Game is one of them.

On the one side, the conference’s top seeded Pittsburgh Steelers. Coming off a 15-1 regular season and a hard-fought overtime victory in the divisional round, the franchise’s home stadium hosted the conference title game on January 15, 2005. Heading into the matchup, the team rode a 15-game winning streak and the number one defense in the league.

Facing them were the defending world champions, the New England Patriots. A 14-2 regular season earned the team the number two seed in the AFC and a date with the top-ranked offense in the league. The Patriots held their divisional round opponent – the Indianapolis Colts – to a mere three points, winning the contest 20-3 and advancing to the next playoff round; to play the Steelers with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

Both teams had already met earlier in the season on the same turf that the AFC title game was being played on. Pittsburgh won that game 34-20, thus ending New England’s NFL record winning streak at 21.

The rematch between the Patriots and Steelers started with the visitors throwing the first punch: On the third offensive play of the game, safety Eugene Wilson intercepted a tipped pass by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to give his team the ball in Pittsburgh territory. Five plays later, New England led 3-0.

The Steelers’ next possession would not go any better for them. While the team was able to move the ball to the Patriots’ side of the field, a fumble by running back Jerome Bettis, which was recovered by linebacker Mike Vrabel, ended the series. New England took over at its own 40-yard line and on the very next play scored a 60-yard touchdown. Tom Brady connected deep with Deion Branch and the visiting team led 10-0.

Pittsburgh finally was able to get on the scoreboard thanks to a successful field goal attempt. However, after exchanging punts, New England was back in scoring range and able to expand its lead: A short pass from Brady to David Givens gave the Patriots a 17-3 lead midway through the second quarter– a lead, that would grow even further on the subsequent Steelers drive.

After moving the ball into scoring range, Roethlisberger threw his second interception of the day. This time, Rodney Harrison was the recipient and he was able to return it 87 yards for a touchdown. Thus, New England entered the locker room at halftime up by three touchdowns.

For Pittsburgh, the second half started better than the first one ended. The team was able to score its first touchdown of the day on a Jerome Bettis scoring run. On the subsequent drive, though, the Patriots were able to reestablish their 21-point lead courtesy of a 25-yard run to the endzone by Corey Dillon.

And although the Steelers scored 10 unanswered points following Dillon’s first ever postseason touchdown, New England was still in control of the game. With the score 31-20 early in the fourth quarter, the team went on a field goal drive that took five minutes off the clock. Eugene Wilson’s second interception of the day then set up another long drive that basically sealed the game – and ended with the 2004 AFC title game’s signature play.

Facing a 3rd and 9 at Pittsburgh’s 23-yard line the Patriots, who were ahead 34-20 at that point, called an end around with Deion Branch as the ball carrier. Branch was able to break all tackle attempts and take the football to the endzone – not before waving goodbye to pursuing Steelers defenders, though.

Pittsburgh was able to score one more touchdown but it did not change the outcome of the game. Thanks to their 41-27 victory, the Patriots moved on to Super Bowl XXXIX; a game they would ultimately win to establish themselves as the first (and until now only) pro football dynasty of the 21st century.