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Patriots defeat Steelers 41-27 in AFC Championship

For the third time in the past four seasons, New England is in the Super Bowl after an impressive victory Sunday at Pittburgh. The Patriots will face the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX where the Pats have been installed as a 6 to 6 1/2 point favorite.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Nobody beats Brady and Belichick in a big game, not even Big Ben.Tom Brady and Bill Belichick 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 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 also upstaged can't-win-the-big-one Steelers coach Bill Cowher, improving to 9-1 as a playoffs coach and matching Vince Lombardi's NFL-best playoff coaching record.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.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.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.So much for that all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl, too, in what would have been a therapeutic matchup for a state that had seen its two teams lose six of seven conference championship games in the last 11 seasons.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. They were on a franchise-record winning streak and, with their seemingly can't-be-beaten rookie at quarterback, thought 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 1995, 1998 and 2002, 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. Instead it was Branch, also injured and out of the first game, who made the big plays with a touchdown catch, touchdown run and another long reception that set up a score.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.Branch, a tough matchup for the Steelers' average secondary because of his speed, came back in the second quarter with a 45-yard reception to the 14 when Brady alertly found him between defenders in Pittsburgh's cover-2 defense.Two plays later, defender Willie Williams fell, allowing David Givens to slip undefended into the end zone on a 9-yard scoring pass play, and it was 17-3.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.With the Steelers driving for the first time in the half, Roethlisberger made yet another rookie mistake, and it all but finished off Pittsburgh.Roethlisberger was looking for tight end Jerame Tuman along the Patriots sideline, but Rodney Harrison stepped in front for an 87-yard interception return touchdown -- making the play close to the same spot where the Jets' Reggie Tongue began his 86-yard scoring return of a Roethlisberger pass last weekend.After that Steelers' 20-17 overtime victory -- they survived only because the Jets' Doug Brien missed two field goals in the final 1:58 of regulation -- Roethlisberger said he knew what would happen if he again threw two interceptions like he did against the Jets.Now he knows what it's like to lose, ending a personal 27-game winning streak dating to the first game of his final season at Miami of Ohio.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.Givens appeared to fumble after an 18-yard catch with Pittsburgh recovering, but the replay showed his knee hitting the turf before he lost the ball. Pittsburgh's Clark Haggans also was penalized 15 yards for a late hit, and an apparent turnover became a New England first down at the 25. Dillon scored on the next play.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.

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