This underdog won't be a patsy

NFL: Though the high-powered Rams are heavy favorites for Super Bowl XXXVI, you can't count out coach Bill Belichick and his resolute Patriots.

Pro Footbal : Afc Championship Game


January 28, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Believe in them or not, the New England Patriots have forced their way into the NFL's grand finale. Next stop: New Orleans. Next miracle target: the so-called Greatest Show on Earth.

The Patriots made the Pittsburgh Steelers disappear yesterday with a glut of special teams plays, a rhythm-breaking blitz on defense and just a pinch of offense.

When Super Bowl XXXVI unfolds Sunday at the Superdome, it will be the AFC's unlikeliest playoff team against the NFC team everyone expected to be there -- the St. Louis Rams.

The Patriots punched their ticket with a 24-17 upset in Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game. The Rams advanced with a nervous 29-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC.

Don't expect this to be one of those Super Bowl blowouts, like when the AFC used to send a surprise team every year and the NFC would systematically take it apart. It happened 13 straight years until the Denver Broncos ended the AFC drought four years ago.

It shouldn't happen for two reasons: New England coach Bill Belichick won't let it happen, and the Rams' once-prolific offense, a.k.a. the Greatest Show on Earth, hasn't been all that prolific in the postseason.

This showdown offers the marvelous coaching matchup of Belichick, the Patriots' unmatched defensive mind, against St. Louis' Mike Martz, the architect of the Rams' wondrous offense.

In a year when patriotism is at a peak, it could be special.

The Rams (16-2) are going back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

The Patriots (13-5) are going for the third time in 17 years, and each time, the destination was New Orleans. They lost Super Bowl XX after the 1985 season to Chicago, 46-10, and Super Bowl XXXI at the end of the 1996 season to Green Bay, 35-21. That's an aggregate 81-31, if you're counting.

But this is a season in which New England has defied logic. The Patriots are only 19th in the NFL in offense, 24th in defense. But in a big game, no one has shown to have a more resolute defense.

The Patriots won 12 games with a quarterback who was fourth-string a year ago. Yet when Tom Brady suffered a high ankle sprain yesterday, they won No. 13 with a veteran who'd been there before -- Drew Bledsoe -- but hadn't played since he suffered a chest injury on Sept. 23.

Bledsoe's pedigree showed through in the win over the Steelers. The nine-year veteran delivered 10 points for the Patriots, who got 14 from their special teams. That and a relentless blitz that kept Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart out of sync were enough.

For the sixth time in the past 10 AFC championship games, the visiting team won.

And consider this: The Patriots and the Rams have matching momentum. Each team has won eight straight games and 10 of 11. New England's only loss in that stretch was a 24-17 defeat at home in Week 10 against St. Louis.

The Rams' offense was prolific that Sunday night. Quarterback Kurt Warner completed 30 of 42 passes for a season-high 401 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Running back Marshall Faulk, who won yesterday's game against Philadelphia, rushed for 83 yards against the Patriots and caught 70 yards in passes.

Brady was 19-for-27 for 185 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Antowain Smith gained only 36 yards on 15 carries.

As always, though, there was this caveat: If Smith hadn't fumbled on the St. Louis 1 just before halftime, the Patriots could have taken a 10-point lead. No rout, indeed.

The Rams have gone 13-3 against AFC teams since 1998, including 4-0 this season. But the Patriots may have something bigger working here. Neither of the past two Super Bowl champions -- the Ravens and these same Rams -- had a winning record the season before they won the championship.

The Patriots went 5-11 last season. This year, it might work again.

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