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PLAYOFF MATCHUPS | AFC : FIRST LOOK: NEXT WEEKEND'S
PLAYOFF GAMES

PITTSBURGH (11-6) at NEW ENGLAND (11-5)

December 30, 1996|STEVE SPRINGER

Sunday, Jan. 5, Ch. 4, 9:30 a.m.

* STORYLINE: With all the attention being paid to Denver, many seem to have forgotten the Steelers, who are not only the defending AFC champions, but may be even stronger than they were a year ago. Instead of the sometimes inconsistent Neil O'Donnell at quarterback, they have the duo of Mike Tomczak and Kordell Stewart. Instead of Erric Pegram and Bam Morris at running back, neither of whom had a great postseason last year, Pittsburgh has Jerome Bettis, who, after one game, is already only 86 yards behind Morris' team-high postseason rushing total of a year ago. And the Steeler defense looks as strong as ever. New England, on the other hand, struggled at the end of the season. After losing to the Dallas Cowboys, 12-6, certainly no disgrace, the Patriots fell behind the New York Giants, 22-0, definitely a disgrace, before rallying to win their regular-season finale.

* PITTSBURGH UPDATE: Bettis, although playing with a bruised ankle and a pulled groin muscle, seems to be operating at peak efficiency, perhaps fueled by his first postseason. The key to this game could be Stewart, who is used as a wild card by Steeler Coach Bill Cowher, dropped in as a change-of-pace after defenses start keying on Tomczak. Most defenses don't seem to know what to make of Stewart, who is as likely to take off and run as he is to throw. The Steelers have the edge because home-field advantage will be overridden by physical advantage. All of which should send New England Coach Bill Parcells back to coach in New York.

* NEW ENGLAND UPDATE: For Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe to be effective, running back Curtis Martin must establish a running game. But that doesn't figure to be easy against a physical Pittsburgh defensive line that beat up Indianapolis Colt quarterback Jim Harbaugh Sunday and nullified running back Marshall Faulk.

* THE LINE: New England by three.

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