By Howard Ulman
FOXBOROUGH, Mass.— The Steelers snapped the Patriots’ spell over them with a plan that has worked all season: knock ‘em down, steal the ball and keep them from gaining yards.
Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense got rolling in the second half, leading the Steelers to a 33-10 win on a cold and rainy Sunday, only their second victory in eight games against New England.
“We heard a lot of talk about it being a rivalry,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “It hasn’t been much of a rivalry until you win some. That’s what we talked about coming up here.”
The Steelers outscored the Patriots 23-0 in the second half when they had all five of their takeaways and four of their five sacks and gave up 81 yards to a team that had gained more than 500 in each of its two previous games.
“They had to start passing the ball and we didn’t have to sit back and try and guess what they were doing,” said James Harrison, who sacked Matt Cassel twice, forcing fumbles. “We just pinned our ears back and went at them.”
The Steelers (9-3) got two scoring passes from Ben Roethlisberger and four field goals from Jeff Reed and lead Baltimore by one game in the AFC North.
The Patriots (7-5) gained only 267 yards and remained a game behind the New York Jets in the AFC East. They’re tied with Miami in the division and trail Indianapolis and Baltimore by one game in the wild-card race.
“A couple of weeks ago, all the games became must wins,” said Sammy Morris, who scored the Patriots’ only touchdown. “Now it puts a little more emphasis on every game.”
The Patriots beat the Steelers in two AFC championship games en route to two of their three Super Bowl titles this decade and dominated them 34-13 in Foxborough last season.
“Two different teams,” said Hines Ward, who caught one scoring pass. “(Tom) Brady’s out on their team. We’re worried about the ‘08 Steelers not the ‘07 Steelers.”
So are their opponents.
Pittsburgh hasn’t allowed more than 290 yards in any game this season and held New England to one conversion on 13 third-down plays.
“The weather didn’t matter,” New England’s Kevin Faulk said. “The turnovers were frustrating. You can’t do that and win in this league.”
Cassel was 19-for-39 for 169 yards and no touchdowns against Pittsburgh after throwing for at least 400 yards in his past two games. He lost his leading receiver when Wes Welker left late in the third quarter after being leveled by safety Ryan Clark. There was no update on his condition.
Randy Moss dropped two passes while wide open, one of which may have gone for a touchdown in the final minute of the first half. Two plays later, Stephen Gostkowski missed a 27-yard field goal.
“Once you drop one ball, you drop another ball, it does start to affect you mentally,” Moss said. “I didn’t play good today. I’m not blaming it on the weather.”
In the third quarter, Matthew Slater fumbled away a kickoff, setting up Roethlisberger’s 11-yard scoring pass to Ward. Slater filled in for Ellis Hobbs, who sat out that play after suffering cramps.
Harrison forced fumbles by Cassel on his two sacks, which gave him 14 for the season. One led to Reed’s 20-yard field goal that made it 23-10. Reed missed his kick after the other one.
“That’s what we’ve come to expect from him,” Tomlin said of Harrison.
Troy Polamalu’s interception with 9:18 left led to Reed’s 40-yard field goal. Then Lawrence Timmons returned another interception 89 yards, setting up Gary Russell’s 1-yard touchdown run.
“It’s not about Matt Cassel,” the quarterback said. “It’s about 11 guys on offense trying to get better and I could care less about” his game-by-game progress being stopped.
With more than five minutes left, most of the drenched fans had headed to the warmth of their cars. Some who remained waved yellow-and-black Terrible Towels.
New England scored first on Morris’ 2-yard run after Mike Vrabel intercepted Roethlisberger’s pass on Pittsburgh’s second offensive play. Gostkowski’s 29-yard field goal gave the Patriots a 10-3 lead before Roethlisberger’s 19-yard scoring pass to Santonio Holmes with 1:55 left in the half.
Roethlisberger went 17-for-33 for 179 yards and one interception as the Steelers converted on 8-of-16 third downs and put up their third-highest scoring game of the season despite coming in ranked only 26th in yards gained.
But the defense was the difference.
“It was unbelievable,” Roethlisberger said. “You just get to the sideline, put your coat on, your hat on, and, all of a sudden, you’re ready to go back on the field.”
Notes: Harrison, with 14 sacks, and Woodley, with 11½, set a club record for most combined sacks by two players. … Faulk’s 41-yard run was the third longest of his 10-year career. … Both teams had 19 first downs, but the Steelers had an edge of 10 minutes, 10 seconds in time of possession.