BOSTON -- The New England Patriots handily beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2004 AFC Championship Game en route to the franchise's third Super Bowl title. But all these years later, former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis doesn't think that New England victory was legit.
Yes, the Patriots are once again being accused of cheating by a team they beat on the way to a championship.
Bettis joined former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on his podcast Footbahlin with Ben Roethlisberger, and the duo were quick to throw out a cheating accusation against the Patriots. Bettis was contemplating retirement after the 2004 season, but while on the sideline toward the end of that 41-27 shellacking by the Patriots, Roethlisberger plead his case for the running back to come back for another year. The confident rookie told Bettis that he'd get him to the Super Bowl if he returned.
"If your ass hadn't thrown two interceptions, we'd be in the Super Bowl!," Bettis said.
"To be fair, the Patriots cheated," Roethlisberger replied.
"For sure they did," Bettis said. "There's not even a question in my mind."
Bettis' claim comes from the Patriots shutting down a fourth-and-1 run of his in the first quarter. Prior to the play, Bettis said that Steelers offensive line coach, Russ Grimm, made a hand motion that signaled to run a counter play. Bettis said that after the Patriots saw Grimm make that call, they called a timeout to change things up, knowing what the Steelers were about to run.
"Who normally goes to the sideline on a timeout? The defensive tackles, right? They told the nose guard, [Ted] Washington, they pulled him to the sideline," Bettis recalled. "Big 400-pound guy, he doesn't wanna go the sideline and go all the way back. What does he want to go to the sideline for? They're yelling and made him go the sideline and come back.
"Then, we run the play, he loops into the hole, Washington does. They stop us on fourth down. That's a critical play in the game. They had our signs, and they called a timeout to get them ready for that play because they knew it was coming," Bettis continued. "No question in my mind. I remember vividly, because I thought, 'Why is this big dude going to the sideline?'"
However, there are some issues with Bettis' "vivid" memory of that string of events.
For starters, Ted Washington was not on the Patriots for the 2004 season. In fact, Ted Washington never played a regular season or playoff game against the Steelers in his lone season in a New England uniform. It was linebacker Ted Johnson who went to the sidelines that day.
The Patriots also never called a timeout before that fourth-and-1 play. Those are two fairly big inaccuracies with Bettis' recollection.
He was correct that it was a critical play in the game though. Not only did the Patriots keep Bettis from getting a yard, but linebacker Rosevelt Colvin also forced and recovered a Bettis fumble on the play, a detail the Hall of Fame running back conveniently left out.
One play later, Tom Brady went deep to Deion Branch and the receiver raced for a 60-yard touchdown to put New England on top 10-0. That lead was up to 24-3 by halftime and 31-10 in the third quarter, before the Pats walked out of Heinz Field with a 41-27 win.
Two weeks later, the Patriots were Super Bowl champs for the third time in four years. That dynastic run has been slightly clouded since the Spygate controversy exploded in 2007, but what Bettis is accusing the Patriots of doesn't sound like cheating.
It sounds more like the Patriots knew Pittsburgh's tendencies (pretty much anyone watching that game knew that Bettis was getting the ball in that fourth-and-1 situation) and adjusted. Bill Belichick had his team in a great position to make a play and they did just that. And picking up on hand gestures and signals from the opposing sideline is not cheating, it's just part of football.
But that will never stop players from complaining about a loss to the Patriots nearly 20 years later.
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