PITTSBURGH (AP) -Wide receiver Hines Ward suspects the New England Patriots may have had some type of inside information on the Pittsburgh Steelers before at least one of the teams' two AFC championship game matchups since the 2001 season.
Ward is certain the Patriots, while known for the thoroughness of their scouting under coach Bill Belichick, had some kind of unusual help before their 24-17 upset victory in Pittsburgh in the January 2002 AFC championship game. The Patriots went on to win the first of their three Super Bowls.
``Oh, they knew,'' Ward said Wednesday. ``They were calling our stuff out. They knew, especially that first championship game here at Heinz Field. They knew a lot of our calls. There's no question some of their players were calling out some of our stuff.''
NFL security officers confiscated a video camera and tape from Patriots video assistant Matt Estrella while he was working on the New York Jets' sideline during New England's 38-14 victory on Sunday. The league has confirmed that it is investigating whether the Patriots were taping the Jets' defensive coaches as they signaled to players on the field.
On Tuesday, Steelers first-year coach Mike Tomlin, who wasn't around for those AFC championship games, said ``when there's smoke, there's fire'' of widespread suspicion some NFL teams use spying tactics.
The Patriots also beat the Steelers 41-27 in the January 2005 AFC championship game, though that victory was so convincing it would be difficult to pin it on cheating.
Still, Ward said he is disappointed there are allegations that any NFL team may have resorted to spying to gain an edge.
``You would hope that, during their run, when they were winning all their (three) Super Bowls, all that stuff wasn't going on,'' Ward said. ``You look back in the past, and we played them in the championship games, and you kind of wonder. It seemed like they were a step ahead of us at all times, but those games are behind us. There's nothing we can do about it. You just look forward and see what the commissioner (Roger Goodell) will do.''
Ward said any team caught spying should give up high draft picks.
``It's really hard to say (they should) forfeit games,'' Ward said. ``Draft picks would hurt a lot of teams; take away their first or second-round pick - that would be a stiff penalty to make sure nobody does it again.''
Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend also felt suspicious, if only for one play he didn't identify, during one of the AFC title games.
That led quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to joke, ``If they cheated during our AFC championship game (in 2005), so we should get a Super Bowl ring.''
Roethlisberger has given little thought to the possibility the Patriots may have had an unfair advantage against Pittsburgh.
``No, it's actually the farthest thing from my mind. I don't think it's been in the front of too many people's mind,'' he said.
Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton also downplayed the cheating talk, saying scouting is so through in the NFL that it's difficult to fool any team.
``In this league, everybody knows what everybody's going to run. It's just a matter of stopping it,'' he said. ``The bottom line is you watch enough film and you know where guys are and where they're coming from.''
Dick Hoak, the NFL's most tenured assistant coach before retiring this year after 35 seasons, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the Steelers once received a suspicious video tape by mistake from an opposing team during a routine tape exchange.
The tape focused on a coach making hand signals from the sideline, Hoak said, but the Steelers did not report the tape to the NFL.
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AP freelance writer Jim Wexell contributed to this report.
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