Patriots pull super upset

N. England gets 2 TDs on special teams to stun Steelers, 24-17, win AFC

Rams next in Super Bowl

Brady hurt

Bledsoe plays for first time since Sept., throws TD

Pro Football : Afc Championship Games

January 28, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH - The unlikeliest contenders four months ago, the New England Patriots crashed the Super Bowl XXXVI party in the most improbable of ways.

Delivering two touchdowns off special teams and receiving a spark from $100 million backup quarterback Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots upset the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-17, before a stunned capacity crowd of 64,704 at Heinz Field yesterday. New England will make an unexpected rendezvous with the St. Louis Rams in Sunday's Super Bowl in New Orleans.

A 10-point underdog, New England (13-5) earned an invitation to The Big Easy the hard way. After finishing 5-11 a year ago, the Patriots watched Bledsoe go down with a chest injury in Week 2 and began the season 1-3.

Now, on the heels of an eight-game winning streak, they are headed to a Super Bowl in New Orleans for the third time in search of the franchise's first NFL championship.

"We've come a long way," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was hired exactly two years ago yesterday. "The guys that believe in this team are the ones standing in that locker room. That's all that matters."

The Steelers (14-4) became the AFC's seventh top seed in the past eight years to fail to make the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh dropped to 1-3 in title games at home under coach Bill Cowher.

"This has been a football team that has answered the challenges and seized the opportunities that have existed all season long," Cowher said. "We feel like we let one slip away today."

The Steelers' biggest weakness - special teams - led to their demise.

Midway through the third quarter, the Patriots' Troy Brown picked up a blocked 34-yard field-goal attempt by Kris Brown and ran it 11 yards to midfield. With Kris Brown hanging on his back, Troy Brown lateraled the ball to Antwan Harris, who sprinted 49 yards untouched into the end zone.

"Antwan started calling my name," Troy Brown said, "and I looked over my shoulder and gave it to him."

That touchdown lifted New England's lead to 21-3 with 8:51 left in the third quarter. Pittsburgh closed the deficit to 21-17, but Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in the final three minutes to end the comeback.

Brown, who earlier had scored on a 55-yard punt return and finished with 121 yards receiving, was the all-around catalyst for a Patriots offense that managed only one trip inside the red zone.

"If there's a more valuable player to his team in the league than Troy Brown, I don't know who is," Bledsoe said. "Without Troy Brown, I don't know what our record would be this year, but we certainly wouldn't be standing where we are right now."

New England was jump-started by Brown and a second chance.

Near the end of the first quarter, Pittsburgh's Josh Miller booted a 64-yard punt to the New England 23-yard line that had to be re-kicked because Troy Edwards, one of the Steelers' cover men, ran out of bounds without being forced out 50 yards from the play. The second punt went directly to Brown, who weaved up the middle 55 yards to put the Patriots up 7-0 with 3:42 left in the first quarter.

"It was supposed to be a left return, but the guys overplayed it to the outside," Troy Brown said. "I saw the seam up the middle, and we just hit it."

After their lead was clipped to 7-3, the Patriots had to regroup with 1:40 left in the first half when starting quarterback Tom Brady went down with a left ankle injury. Coming in as a replacement for the first time since 1993, Bledsoe completed all three of his passes in that drive, hitting David Patten in the right corner of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.

Bledsoe finished 10-for-21 for 102 yards in his first action since Sept. 23, when he suffered a chest injury and never regained his job.

"It's been a very long year personally," said Bledsoe, who signed a 10-year, $103 million contract in the off-season but likely will be traded. "I had gone through in my mind, envisioning this scenario the past week. To have that happen and to be kneeling on the ball at the end of the game knowing you're going to the Super Bowl again was just a little overwhelming."

Bledsoe's performance has stoked a quarterback controversy.

Should the Patriots start Brady, a second-year player who won his past seven starts, or Bledsoe, a three-time Pro Bowler?

"We'll make a decision later on in the week," Belichick said. "We're trying to enjoy the victory."

After the Patriots took a 21-3 lead off the blocked field goal, Pittsburgh trimmed the margin to 21-17 on touchdown runs by Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue. But New England increased its advantage to 24-17 early in the fourth quarter on a 44-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, then intercepted Stewart to thwart the Steelers' final two drives.

That secured another Super Bowl visit to New Orleans for New England. The Patriots also went in the 1986 and 1997 seasons, and both times they lost.

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