PITTSBURGH (AP) – Now, the rematch of the rematch.

The Patriots and Steelers played two of the NFL’s best games last season, with Pittsburgh ending New England’s best-ever 21-game winning streak on Oct. 31 and the Patriots winning the one that really counted for the AFC championship in January.

Those games mean nothing now – as coach Bill Cowher said, how can the Steelers avenge any loss that ends a season? – but today’s game could signal whether the Patriots (1-1) are the team they were in winning three of the last four Super Bowls. Or, conversely, if Steelers (2-0) are the team to beat in the AFC after winning their first two games by 20-point margins, the first time in team history they’ve done that.

The Patriots are coming off a 27-17 loss at Carolina and must win to avoid their first two-game losing streak since December 2002. A season ago, they lost only twice in 19 games, counting the playoffs.

“I don’t care what happened last week, last year, last month, what the overall record between the two teams was going back to 1947 or whenever they started playing each other, or who wins when the wind is blowing in from the north,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I pay attention to what the matchups are for each individual game.”

What’s obvious is that Patriots vs. Steelers has become one of football’s best matchups, and a regular one at that with five games in five years. And while this Week 3 game won’t decide either team’s season, it can begin to define it.

“If you want to consider yourself one of the best teams, you’ve got to knock off the best team off – and, right now, they have that title,” Steelers safety Chris Hope said.

Just as in their Halloween game a year ago, there’s a long winning streak going. The Steelers ended the Patriots’ record 18-game regular-season winning streak by winning 34-20, and now it’s the Steelers who are closing in with 16 in a row.

The difference is the Steelers aren’t the Super Bowl champions, as the Patriots were during their record run. As Steelers guard Alan Faneca said, “They got the rings and we went home.”

Still, there are signs aplenty this could be a far more difficult run for the Patriots than in years past.

The running game that complemented quarterback Tom Brady’s playmaking and quick thinking has done nothing, with Corey Dillon – a 1,635-yard rusher last season – held to 99 yards and a 2.7 average. The Patriots had an uncharacteristic three turnovers and 12 penalties last week, and even Brady didn’t look very Brady-like with a fumble and interception.

“But I don’t think we say, “We’ve really got to play well this week because we lost last week,’ ” Brady said. “No, you’ve got to play well every week. If you don’t play well against this team, you will get beat.”

While the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger looked like the rookie he was in that 41-27 AFC title game loss to New England with three interceptions and a fumble, he’s been better than Brady so far. He has four TD passes, no interceptions and has led the Steelers to a score on every first-half possession except for one brief three-play series – though the opposition was the not-so-good Titans and Texans.

Roethlisberger is trying to become the first NFL quarterback to win his first 16 starts, the equivalent of a full season. And the Steelers can open 3-0 for the first time since Cowher’s first season in 1992.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen a more dominating team than what Pittsburgh has been in these first two regular-season games,” Belichick said. “They really haven’t been in a competitive game. … They’re the best team in the league this year.”

The Steelers have made relatively few personnel changes since those Patriots games last season, but one has greatly reshaped their offense. Willie Parker, a college backup at North Carolina, has supplanted the injured Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis to bring a long-missing speed element to what has long been the NFL’s best power running game.

Parker had 161 yards against Tennessee and 111 against Houston, and he gives the Steelers someone other than their wide receivers who can turn a routine play into a 40-yard gain.

“He adds an extra dimension to what people are used to when they think Steelers football,” Roethlisberger said.

To create some running room for Dillon, the Patriots may try to hit some deep balls early, as they did with two long completions to Deion Branch in the AFC title game. One target could be cornerback Ike Taylor, who became a starter only two games ago.

“Remember in the championship game against the Steelers? We played one of the best games we’ve ever played here on offense,” said Brady, who could become the second-quickest quarterback to reach 50 wins with a victory; Ken Stabler did it in 62 games and this is Brady’s 55th. “We executed well throughout the entire game. That’s what we’re going to need again this week.”

Yes, the Steelers remember.

“The last time we played them, they came down and beat us and went to the Super Bowl and became champs,” linebacker Clark Haggans said. “I think that’s going to be on a lot of people’s minds.”

AP-ES-09-22-05 1755EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.