Staley, Bettis both looking to make up for conference final failures

Friday, January 21st 2005, 8:42 am
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ If Duce Staley needed a team that could sympathize with his three consecutive NFC championship game losses, the Pittsburgh Steelers were it.

When Staley moved cross-state from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh as a free agent early last year, he went from one team determined to prove it wasn't a big-game failure to another.

The Steelers are 1-3 since 1995 as a home-field favorite in AFC championships _ a record not quite as bad as the Eagles', but close. No wonder the Eagles, who play Atlanta on Sunday, and the Steelers are desperate to avoid a fourth loss each as they play host to the two conference title games.

``He's focused in on this game,'' running back Jerome Bettis said of Staley's role in Sunday's Patriots-Steelers AFC championship. ``He thinks it's his best opportunity.''

Staley, a three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Philadelphia, left after his carries were cut by two-thirds last season amid a three-back rotation. He was Pittsburgh's primary runner when the season started, with four 100-yard games in a five-game stretch before he injured a hamstring Oct. 31 against New England.

Bettis, the No. 5 rusher in NFL history but mostly a goal-line specialist until Staley got hurt, stepped in with seven 100-yard games in as many starts.

Whatever disappointment Staley felt in at least temporarily losing his job has been tempered by his friendship with Bettis. With the Super Bowl just one victory away, he also doesn't want to disrupt an unimaginably good season that has seen the Steelers win a club-record 15 in a row.

``This wouldn't work on a lot of teams _ two guys that love the ball, two guys that want the ball, two guys that are competitive,'' Staley said.

To Bettis, it's worked because both have put their egos aside at key moments: Bettis when he was benched to start the season, Staley when Bettis remained the starter even after Staley was healthy again.

Staley had only 123 yards in three games during the second half of the season, but had 54 yards on 11 carries in Pittsburgh's 20-17 overtime playoff victory over the Jets on Saturday. He took over in the fourth quarter after Bettis developed leg cramps.

The 255-pound Bettis will start against New England, but coach Bill Cowher said the 242-pound Staley will play in the first half.

``You have two guys who understand the situation and the gravity of it, who do not want to derail the train because of egos,'' Bettis said.

Staley ran for 125 yards and Bettis had 65 in Pittsburgh's 34-20 victory Oct. 31 that ended New England's record 21-game winning streak. The Steelers again want to pound the two power backs behind All-Pro linemen Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings, to force the Patriots to commit extra defenders to the run and create opportunities for rookie Ben Roethlisberger to throw.

``You really have to bring your lunch when you tackle these guys because they are so big,'' Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. ``We are going to have to stop the run to win this game. They are going to roll Bettis at us. They are going to roll Staley at us.''

Getting the running game going is the Steelers' No. 1 priority, especially since Patriots star Corey Dillon has three 100-yard games in his last four starts. He ran for 144 yards in a 20-3 victory Sunday over the Colts.

Dillon ``has provided an awful lot to this team and an awful lot for the offense,'' quarterback Tom Brady said. ``Last week's game, he really controlled the whole game with the way he ran and the way those offensive linemen blocked for him.''

Dillon missed the previous game in Pittsburgh, with predictable results: The Steelers outrushed the Patriots 221-5, and New England's six rushing attempts were the fewest for an NFL team in 71 years.

Dillon had only two 100-yard performances in 13 games against the Steelers while with Cincinnati, and none in his last seven starts.

While the Steelers can return to the Super Bowl for only the second time in 25 years by winning, Faneca said they can't make up for their 24-17 upset loss to New England in the January 2002 AFC title game in Pittsburgh.

``What's payback?'' Faneca said. ``They beat us, won the Super Bowl and got Super Bowl rings. Beyond meeting them back at the bus, we can't take their rings.''