A real pro, Pats' Brown in the bowl that counts

Pro Football : Afc Championship Game

January 28, 2002|By Mike Preston

PITTSBURGH -- Everyone was searching for a star. New England coach Bill Belichick was a candidate, and so was the NFL's latest hero, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, as well as an old one, New England backup Drew Bledsoe.

But the biggest difference in New England's 24-17 upset of Pittsburgh yesterday at Heinz Field was Troy Brown, a little-known wide receiver who became a household name for at least a day.

There will be all these sappy stories about Bledsoe replacing the injured Brady late in the second quarter, how he led the team downfield and drove the Patriots to the Super Bowl. But there is no winning season or Super Bowl without Brown.

Almost every time the Patriots needed a big play yesterday, No. 80 came to the rescue.

He returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter, then scooped up a blocked field-goal attempt and handed it to Antwan Harris for a 49-yard touchdown return in the third quarter. He had eight receptions for 121 yards, with many of the catches crucial.

If yesterday were the Super Bowl, Brown would be going to Disney World and appearing on the Wheaties box.

"We certainly wouldn't be standing where we are right now without him," Bledsoe said.

Brown may be only 5 feet 10 and 193 pounds, but he has carried the offense as well as the team this season. He has become the go-to guy, taking over the primary role left behind by Terry Glenn, the on-again, off-again, much-suspended receiver whose last major contribution came Oct. 14 before injuring his hamstrings.

Brown averaged 14.2 yards on 29 punt returns, including two for touchdowns. He had 101 receptions for 1,199 yards and five touchdowns.

A Pro Bowl season, right?

Brown was left off the team, only the second player in AFC history to record more than 100 catches in a season and not be selected. The other was Denver's Ed McCaffrey last year.

Yet being slighted doesn't bother Brown. He's too blue-collar. He is a former eighth-round pick out of Marshall who has lasted nine seasons in the NFL. Even the Patriots stiffed him once, cutting him during the season after he played in 12 games as a rookie.

"I always say whatever my teammates think about me is the most important thing," Brown said. "I don't care what anybody else says outside of our locker room. If you can earn the respect of your teammates and they can put trust in you, that's all that matters."

The Patriots love Brown.

"He is a terrific football player, puts the team first and I think that's really a great model he sets for the younger players," Belichick said. "He is so team-oriented, but a lot of things come his way because of his hard work and determination."

Said safety Lawyer Milloy: "He's the MVP of our team. He is what made our team go. He's the stature of what the Patriots are all about. As long as we have him back there, we always have a chance to score."

The Steelers, who have been atrocious on special teams all season, found that out. Josh Miller had a 64-yard punt that put New England on its own 23 with 4:05 left in the first quarter, but the play was nullified because of Troy Edwards' illegal procedure.

On the next play, Miller kicked the ball in the middle of the field -- right to Brown. He took the ball at his own 45 and raced straight up the middle, where only one player grabbed his shoe, for the score.

"It was supposed to be a left return, but the guys overplayed it to the outside, and I saw the seam up the middle and just hit it," Brown said. "I was surprised that they kicked it right to me."

Brown was just as surprised when he scooped up a fumble off a 34-yard field-goal attempt by Kris Brown with 9:11 left in the third quarter. Defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell made the block and Brown, almost in full stride, picked up the ball before tossing a lateral.

"I just went up there to scoop it up, and saw the kicker who was chasing it, too," Troy Brown said. "He's a pretty fast guy. I saw Antwan coming over my shoulder and he was screaming my name, and from there I just wanted to make sure it was a lateral, and he did a great job for us."

There wasn't any luck involved in Brown's receptions. The Steelers couldn't cover him. Brown had a key 28-yard catch on a third-and-eight play at the Patriots' 32 with 1:59 left in the first half. Four plays later, Brown ran a crossing pattern with receiver David Patten, and Bledsoe threw Patten an 11-yard touchdown pass.

Brown also helped secure the win in the final quarter. Facing third-and-11 at the New England 19 with 5:58 left and ahead by seven points, Brown caught an 18-yarder that allowed the Patriots to run another 1:18 off the clock.

By the end of the game, the Steelers still didn't know Brown's name, but they remembered his number, and the number he did on Pittsburgh.

"He accounted for most of the points," said Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers. "The punt return was definitely a highlight. The field-goal block. The guy is a heck of an athlete. He is a special player. As long as New England has that No. 80 over there, they are going to be successful. Whoever they play in the Super Bowl, they better key that guy. No. 80 is the real deal."

And he was the best player on the field yesterday.

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