PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans didn’t give the Pittsburgh Steelers a true indicator of where they are in the early stages of the NFL season.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher is certain that the New England Patriots will do exactly that.

A year ago, the Steelers were convinced that they were the AFC’s best team after going 15-1 and beating both the Patriots and the eventual NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles during the regular season. The Patriots proved otherwise, returning to Heinz Field for a 41-27 victory in the AFC championship game that left no doubt as to which team was better.

But it’s a new season now, and the Patriots (1-1) have already shown that they might not be the team they were last season. They turned the ball over three times and had 12 penalties in losing 27-17 Sunday to Carolina, giving them half as many losses as they had last season.

To Cowher, that complicates matters for Sunday’s rematch at Heinz Field, the third Patriots-Steelers game there in 12 months. The Patriots haven’t lost consecutive games since losing to Tennessee 24-7 and the New York Jets 30-17 in December 2002, the only season in the last four that they didn’t win the Super Bowl.

“This is a team that’s not used to losing, period,” Cowher said Tuesday. “Back-to-back weeks is unheard of for New England. I think that compounds the challenge we have this week. But from our standpoint, it’s a good barometer to see where we are.”

The Titans and Texans weren’t that as the Steelers jumped out to big, early leads, scoring on every first-half possession in each game except for one brief series at the end of the first half against Houston when they ran out the clock.

“The first two games have been a good start, but we have to prove we can do it consistently,” Cowher said. “Right now it’s too early to make any judgments.”

One message that Cowher got across to his players during their team meeting Monday is this game has nothing to do with last season or not getting to the Super Bowl – that’s over and done with. Instead, this is about this season, and about doing the things necessary to set themselves up for another run at the playoffs.

“It’s still Week 3,” Cowher said. “Certainly there’s a degree of importance for both teams, certainly from New England’s standpoint.”

The teams know each other well enough that Cowher doesn’t expect many surprises schematically from Patriots coach Bill Belichick. What’s been difficult for the Steelers in past games is adjusting to and controlling what the Patriots decide to do.

Three years ago, the Patriots surprised the Steelers by coming out in a no-huddle, quick-pass scheme, and New England surged to a 30-7 lead in winning 30-14. But the Patriots’ offensive options were limited in last year’s regular season game by running back Corey Dillon’s injury, which allowed Pittsburgh to forget about the run and blitz quarterback Tom Brady on nearly every down.

But with Dillon back for the AFC championship game, the Steelers had to devote resources to stopping him. That, in turn, often left Patriots receivers in solo coverage downfield, and Brady took advantage of that for game-altering completions of 60 and 45 yards to Deion Branch, one for a touchdown and the other setting up a score.

“This quarterback will test the discipline of your defense,” Cowher said.

“What we have to do is minimize the big plays. They hit a lot of big plays against us last year. We won our fair share of snaps, but we gave up too many big plays.”

AP-ES-09-20-05 1917EDT


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