By Bob Ryan, Globe Staff | November 1, 2004

PITTSBURGH -- To the question of whether it would end with a bang or a whimper, here is the unequivocal numerical answer: Pittsburgh 34, New England 20.

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''It was pretty clear the Steelers were the better team," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. ''They outcoached us. They outplayed us. They certainly deserved to win, and they won convincingly."

Thus ended yesterday an almost unimaginable football feat. The New England Patriots had gone 21 games and 13 calendar months without losing a game, and had become the National Football League champions for the second time by winning the Super Bowl last February. But their bid to make it 22 victories in succession ended under ideal conditions on a late afternoon when the Steelers delighted a franchise record gathering of 64,737 with a truly inspired performance.

To the end, the Patriots stayed relentlessly on message regarding their endless succession of victories. The word ''streak" had been officially banned from their vocabularies by Belichick. In the team's pregame notes, the media was informed that "The Patriots have recorded a one-game winning streak 21 consecutive times, setting an all-time record for the 85-year history of pro football." "It was never about the streak," said linebacker Mike Vrabel. "It was not in our preparation this week."

Week after week the Patriots had, as the pundits like to say, "found a way to win." This time, however, they submitted a brilliant formula for defeat, combining a sputtering offense with a defense that allowed a disturbing 417 yards, of which a whopping 221 came on the ground. Four turnovers led to 24 Pittsburgh points.

"We didn't do anything near the way we are capable of doing it, and they played an outstanding game" said Belichick. "That's the result you get when those two forces collide."

There is nothing disgraceful about losing to the Steelers. Pittsburgh is a good team. The Steelers entered the game with a 5-1 record and they regarded this game as something akin to an mid-semester exam. They always have enjoyed the backing of a raucous crowd. No one ever looks forward to playing in Pittsburgh. This was true when they played in Three Rivers Stadium, and it remains true now that they play in the outstanding facility known as Heinz Field.

The problem is that the Patriots feel they didn't give themselves much of an opportunity to win this particular game. "We knew that, eventually, we were going to lose a game," said safety Rodney Harrison. "But we don't want to lose in that fashion."

The Patriots started the game the way they normally do, which is to say they scored first. Pittsburgh won the toss and elected to receive. The Patriots got them off the field quickly, and Tom Brady took them to the Pittsburgh 25. Adam Vinatieri kicked a 43-yard field goal and, for the 15th game in succession, the Patriots had scored first.

They didn't score again until their last possession of the half, by which time they were trailing, 24-3.

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What happened? Well, there was a six-play, 80-yard Pittsburgh drive to grab a 7-3 lead. There was a hit, sack, and Brady fumble that led to the next Pittsburgh touchdown. There was a Deshea Townsend interception of a Brady pass intended for Bethel Johnson that was run back for a touchdown. There was an Ike Taylor interception of a Brady pass intended for Johnson that led to a field goal.

That's what happened.

"We got behind to a very good team," Brady said. "We were tough on ourselves. We just dug ourselves a big ditch, and we couldn't fight our way out of it."

The Steelers scored another touchdown emanating from a Patriot turnover when Kevin Faulk fumbled after making a reception and Aaron Smith recovered at the Pats' 17. Talk about deflating: it was the first play of the second half. Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger set up a score with a 12-yard pass to Plaxico Burress on third and 7, and Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh's designated blaster, ran it in from the 2.

Then it became 34-13 on a Jeff Reed field goal, and for the rest of the game Roethlisberger was able to keep the clock moving by handing off to either Duce Staley (25 carries, 125 yards) or Bettis (15 carries, 65 yards). The Patriots had no answers.

"They ran it down our throats," said Harrison. "They were able to work the clock and run the ball. If you can't stop the run, you can't win in this league."

The Patriots had some handy excuses involving injuries, but no one chose to go there. Running back Corey Dillon (assorted leg ailments) was hors de combat from the get-go, and things went seriously downhill when All-Pro cornerback Ty Law left the game five minutes in with a foot injury. Belichick was already dealing with a patchwork secondary and a makeshift offensive line.

But Belichick wouldn't bite, and neither would the noble wide receiver Troy Brown. "Doesn't matter," he said. "You've gotta play. That's football."

Anyway, the Steelers had injury concerns of their own. Everyone in the NFL does.

Nope, the Patriots were just plain bad. There were no positives whatsoever.

"We got beat," snorted Belichick. "We got killed."

Now what?

"It's the same thing every week," said Brady. "It's the same evaluation. You look at what you did wrong, and what you did right. We've just got to get back to winning football."

They plan to remain on message.

"I know how we're going to respond," promised fiery linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "I can tell you guys right now. We are going to work harder. We are going to watch the film tomorrow, and then we will get our workouts in. We will look forward to next week in St. Louis and it's going to be favorable."

Another one-game winning streak. That is the only thing on their minds.

Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.