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NFL Playoffs

First Look

January 21, 2002

New England (12-5) at Pittsburgh (14-3)

Sunday, 9:30 a.m., Channel 2

How they got there: The Steelers had a first-round bye as AFC Central Division champions and defeated Baltimore, 27-10, in a divisional playoff game. The Patriots received a first-round bye as AFC East Division champions and beat the Raiders, 16-13, in a divisional playoff game that went to overtime.

2001 meetings: None. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series, 12-5. New England won the last meeting, 23-9, at Pittsburgh, in 1998.

Common opponents: Pittsburgh 5-1, New England 4-2.

About Pittsburgh: After losing their opener, the Steelers steamrolled through the rest of their schedule, losing only two more games by a total of six points. Pittsburgh's strengths are simple: a smothering, playmaking defense and a powerful rushing offense that remained atop the NFL despite a nagging groin injury to star runner Jerome Bettis. Jason Gildon and rookie standout Kendrell Bell led a defensive unit that topped the league in total defense, rushing defense and sacks. The re-emergence of quarterback Kordell Stewart coupled with the growth of receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress balanced the run-oriented attack with just enough of passing to keep opposing defenses on their heels. Running backs Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala proved to be able backups in Bettis' absence.

About New England: At 0-2 with star quarterback Drew Bledsoe severely injured, receiver Terry Glenn embroiled in a multitude of personal problems, and patchwork offensive and defensive lines, the Patriots seemed to be in dire straits. Enter Tom Brady to the rescue, an untested quarterback who had only three passing attempts on his NFL resume prior to this season. In what turned out to be the story of the year, Brady was not only a solid replacement, but he remained the starter after Bledsoe returned and was chosen to go to the Pro Bowl while guiding the Patriots to an 11-3 record. Buffalo reject Antowain Smith contributed greatly with 1,157 yards.

Roy Jurgens

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