- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

PITTSBURGH Not a 10-point deficit in driving snow, not losing their quarterback (either one), not having to win on the road could faze the New England Patriots. The NFL's little engine that could did it again yesterday and is Super Bowl-bound after holding off the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17 in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field.
The Steelers, who went 13-3 and pounded the defending champion Baltimore Ravens last week, were already making their plans for New Orleans. Super Bowl XXXVI T-shirts were on sale before the game outside the stadium. The assumption of a Pittsburgh victory got under the skin of the 11-5 Patriots, who were 10-point underdogs.
"They didn't respect us at all," said Patriots receiver Troy Brown, who accounted for 201 combined yards, scored on a 55-yard punt return in the first quarter and set up teammate Antwan Harris' 49-yard touchdown off a blocked field goal try in the third quarter. "They didn't expect us to play as well as we did in a hostile place like this."
The Patriots became the fourth road team to win in the past five AFC title games, while the Steelers lost their third of four such contests at home in eight years.
"The further you go, the greater the disappointment," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, whose top-ranked ground game was held to 58 yards on 22 carries.
The previously unknown Tom Brady stepped in for starter Drew Bledsoe and led the Patriots to an 11-3 finish. He then rallied them from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Oakland 16-13 in overtime in the snow last week. But yesterday it was Bledsoe's turn to be the hero. Brady sprained his left ankle on a hit by blitzing Steelers safety Lee Flowers with 1:40 left in the first half and New England leading 7-3.
Bledsoe hadn't played in 18 weeks, but he didn't show any rust. The three-time Pro Bowl passer hooked up with wideout David Patten for 15 yards to the Pittsburgh 25 on his first play, bounced right up from a forceful shove out of bounds by Chad Scott after running for 4 yards, hit Patten for another 10 yards and then connected with Patten (covered by linebacker Jason Gildon) on a fade route in the right side of the end zone for an 11-yard score for New England's only offensive touchdown.
"You can't say enough about the job that Drew did," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who wouldn't say if he was planning to go with Brady or Bledsoe in the Super Bowl. "He came in cold. [It was] a terrific performance under pressure."
The Steelers had the NFL's top defense and No. 3 offense, but their special teams were suspect, and Brown and the Patriots quickly turned those suspicions into reality. First, Brown showed why he was the NFL's top punt returner, taking Josh Miller's line-drive kick 55 yards up the middle for a touchdown to make it 7-0. On the previous play, Miller's 64-yard boomer to the New England 23 had been negated by a penalty on Pittsburgh's Troy Edwards for coming back in from out of bounds.
"You don't want to get a penalty on special teams because the guys who cover kicks are going to be exhausted from running down there," Brown said. "And the ball doesn't always go where you want it to when you kick it again. It was supposed to be a left return, but the guys overplayed the outside. I saw a seam up the middle and just hit it. I broke a tackle and saw the guys at the goal line mauling their gunner."
And if that and his eight catches for 121 yards weren't enough to back up Bledsoe saying "if there's a more valuable player to his team in the league than Troy Brown I don't know who it is," then the 5-foot-10, 193-pound dynamo made another play. When Brandon Mitchell blocked Kris Brown's 34-yard field goal attempt 5:49 into the second half, Troy Brown was there to collect the bouncing ball and later lateral it to Harris.
"The guys up front Anthony Pleasant, Brandon Mitchell and Richard Seymour got a great push," Brown said. "Brandon slapped the ball down pretty hard and knocked it back. … I saw Antwan coming over my shoulder screaming my name. I just wanted to make sure it was a lateral."
That made it 21-3, and the Patriots survived despite giving up touchdowns on their next two defensive series. Adam Vinatieri's 44-yard field goal upped the margin to 24-17, Bledsoe showed gorgeous touch on a critical third-down throw to Brown and safeties Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy ended Pittsburgh's last two drives by picking off Kordell Stewart's passes.
Coming off a 5-11 season, the Patriots endured the death of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein in training camp and started 0-2, in the process losing ninth-year starting quarterback Bledsoe to internal injuries on a tackle by the New York Jets' Mo Lewis.
"I was like, 'Why us?'" Milloy said. "But we didn't panic. That's a credit to our team."

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