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Rams, Steelers look just super
PITTSBURGH -- Bill Cowher's forte as a player was special teams. His area of expertise as an assistant coach was defense.
So what did the Pittsburgh coach want to talk about Monday? The Steelers' offense.
"We've always been a team that says, 'We're going to run the football.' There was never any question we could do that," Cowher said as he began preparation for Sunday's AFC title game against New England. "But if we have to throw the football, there's a confidence about that now. The confidence that's always been there on defense is there on offense right now."
That was one of the anomalies about this weekend's games to determine the conference finalists: The Steelers and Rams, the heavy favorites to be playing in the Super Bowl a week from Sunday, both won thanks to top production from their perceived weaknesses.
The offensive-minded Rams play much better defense than they're given credit for. Similarly, the defensive-minded Steelers are good on offense, too.
St. Louis, playing in its dome, was an early 11 1/2-point favorite over Philadelphia, which it beat in overtime on the road on opening day. The Steelers were 7 1/2-point favorites over New England.
Both seem to be peaking at the right time.
The Rams beat Green Bay 45-17 Sunday, but the surprise wasn't so much the 45 points as the way they came: 28 off six interceptions on a day when the offense had its worst game statistically this season, with just 292 yards from scrimmage.
"It's a great luxury when you don't always have to make big plays," said Kurt Warner, who usually makes a bundle of them.
The Steelers held Baltimore to just 150 yards -- under 100 in the first three quarters -- in their 27-10 victory, which eliminated the defending champions.
That kind of defense is standard from these Steelers.
But Pittsburgh also made big plays on offense -- particularly early, helping it open a 20-0 lead. Amos Zereoue, pressed into service when a shot to relieve the pain in Jerome Bettis' injured groin hit the wrong nerve, ran for 12 yards on the first play from scrimmage. That set the tone for a game in which the Steelers moved the ball well.
"A lot of people don't understand what we can do with the offense," said Hines Ward, whose 94 receptions set a team record this season. "We can run and run and run, then I can go underneath, and Plaxico Burress can go deep. We're not easy to stop, but we don't seem too exciting because the offense is based on running."
Their opponents have some balance, too.
Philadelphia is a defensive-oriented team. But in the last month, since quarterback Donovan McNabb took to scrambling again, the offense has come alive. The 33 points the Eagles scored in Chicago were the most all season against the Bears, who had allowed 17 points or fewer in their previous seven games.
And Philadelphia will have to score in St. Louis -- all the more so because their best cornerback, Troy Vincent, has a groin injury that could keep him out or limit his mobility. That hurts more against a team like the Rams. An examination Monday revealed no tear and the team listed him a day-to-day.
New England is also a good defensive team -- coach Bill Belichick has been one of the NFL's more innovative defensive minds over the last two decades.
But Tom Brady threw for 312 yards in the snow Saturday night in a 16-13 overtime victory over Oakland, rallying New England from 10 points down in the fourth quarter with the help of a replay call that turned a Patriots' fumble into an incomplete pass.
And the Steelers seemed a little puzzled Monday about having to play New England after disposing of their bitter rival from Baltimore.
"We don't know these guys," Ward said. "We know Baltimore and the Jets and Miami and a lot of the other playoff teams. This team, we have to learn."
Maybe that's why the Steelers are favored by just 7 1/2.