PITTSBURGH, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- The Pittsburgh Steelers, who have won more Super Bowl titles than any other team from the AFC, will try to earn a chance for another Sunday when they host the New England Patriots with the conference championship on the line.
An unseasonably mild afternoon is forecast for the AFC Championship game, which brings together teams that did not reach the playoffs a year ago and combined during the 1999 and 2000 seasons to produce a record of 28-38.
Pittsburgh, however, wound up with the best record in the conference this season thanks to a defense that ranked No. 1 in the league and a quarterback who finally blossomed into the star he was expected to be years ago.
New England surged to the top of the AFC East behind a quarterback who came from nowhere to become of the best stories in the league.
Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. EST with the winner taking on either St. Louis or Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Steelers are 5-5 in their past AFC Championship appearances and have a 4-1 record in the Super Bowl. Since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, New England has won both its trips to the AFC title contest, but has yet to win a Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh comes into Sunday's game as a tribute to continuity. While coaching changes are commonplace around the NFL, Steelers Coach Bill Cowher was allowed to battle through tough times and the patience has been rewarded.
The reward has also come to quarterback Kordell Stewart, who in his seventh season has finally emerged as one of the best at his position. Stewart completed 60 percent of his passes this season and stayed away from the critical mistakes that have haunted him in the past.
He has also played a key role in returning the image as a physical team to the Steelers.
"When the quarterback gives up his body like he does, it sends the message to everyone that we also have to be tough," said Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis, who is expected to play after a seven-week absence brought on by a groin strain. "Kordell does it every week. There is no question he sets the tone for us being a physical, hard-nosed football team."
The tone for the Patriots has also been set by their quarterback -- Tom Brady.
After starter Drew Bledsoe suffered a chest injury in the second week of the season, Brady took over as the starter and directed the Patriots to an 11-3 record.
He becomes the seventh quarterback since 1970 to take his team to a conference championship game in the year of his first start.
Brady continued the dream season with an outstanding performance in New England's 16-13 overtime win over the Oakland Raiders last Saturday, completing 32 of 52 passes for 312 yards despite playing in snowy conditions.
The Patriots, however, received a huge boost against Oakland when referee Walt Coleman turned an apparent fumble by Brady into an incompletion after viewing a replay with 1:47 left, ruling the quarterback completed his throwing motion, but had yet to clearly "tuck" the ball away.
Adam Vinatieri kicked a 45-yard field goal to tie the game and then won it with a 23-yarder 8:29 into overtime.
But Brady may need more than an overturned call to beat the Steelers, who ranked first in the NFL in defense and sacks with 55. Outside linebackers Jason Gildon and Joey Porter and inside linebackers Earl Holmes and Kendrell Bell, the defensive rookie of the year, can be counted on to take their shots at the quarterback in Pittsburgh's blitz packages.
"The Steelers blitz when they come off the bus," New England Coach Bill Belichick said. "They have a lot of speed at the linebacker positions and fly in from both the inside and outside. They'll hit you with safety and corner blitzes as well, so our offensive line will face quite a challenge."
The Patriots' line yielded 46 sacks this season. Rookie left tackle Matt Light will try to prevent Porter from running around the edge and right tackle Greg Robinson-Randall will try to block off Gildon.
Belichick knows a thing or two about blitzes. But he must be careful in attacking Stewart, who threw for 3,109 yards and rushed for 536 this season.
With extra defensive backs like Terrance Shaw and Terrell Buckley to complement starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith and safeties Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones, Belichick will try to confuse Stewart with disguised coverages and well-timed blitzes.
"Kordell has been making great decisions with the ball, but the Patriots really give you a lot of different looks," Cowher said. "They'll come at you from different places and you have to be ready to account for their various blitzes."
First the Pats must prove they can stop the NFL's top-ranked running game. Even without Bettis, the Steelers rushed for 154 yards in last week's 27-10 divisional playoff win over the defending champion Baltimore Ravens.
Bettis had been expected to play against the Ravens, but was forced to sit out the game when a pain-killing injection caused one of his legs to go numb.
Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala combined for 93 yards on 36 carries in Bettis' absence.
"He'll definitely be the freshest man in the playoffs when he comes back," Steelers left tackle Wayne Gandy said. "For a man who is driven, who already is a hard runner, if he gets a chance to play Sunday, he'll be running 100 miles per hour."
In the last regular season meeting between these teams, the Patriots posted a 23-9 victory at Pittsburgh in December 1998. Bledsoe threw for 327 yards and a touchdown, Vinatieri kicked three field goals and Law had a key interception. Stewart was 21 of 45 for 206 yards with two interceptions.
The Steelers lead the series, 12-5, including playoffs, and have won six of the last seven meetings.