Men who melt steel
Pittsburgh – They said New England would have to play a perfect game to come away with a win against the vaunted Steelers. National consensus had the Patriots losing across the board. Those Patriots didn't have chance. Guess they just weren't paying attention all season.
Who would have thought it would be the Patriots taking a knee, running out the clock and going to the Super Bowl with a 24-17 win over those same vaunted Steelers. It doesn't matter now. Your New England Patriots are the AFC Champions.
Holding non-Kordell Stewart runners to a measly 17 yards, the Patriots defense came up big. Special teams scored 14 points and the offense did what it had to do, when it had to, for the win.
As if the game itself didn't promise enough drama, it became melodramatic late in the second quarter. Brady was in the process of connecting with Brown for a 28-yard pick-up when Lee Flowers dove at Brady's legs and the quarterback went down the wrong way. The pass was good but Brady was taken from the game with a leg injury and in came Drew Bledsoe.
Yes, that Drew Bledsoe.
No sooner had he resumed his familiar role under center, did Bledsoe begin to pick apart the Steeler secondary in a two-minute drill. A 4-yard keeper was mixed in between two passes of 15 and 10 yards to David Patten. Then, on the 11-yard line, Bledsoe found Patten in the right corner of the end zone for the score. New England went to the locker room with a 14-3 halftime lead and No. 11 back at the helm. The stuff of legends.
You knew by then, these Patriots couldn't lose. Well, sort of.
The game was highlighted by what happened midway through the third quarter but one has to go back to the Steelers first possession of the second half to truly appreciate the sequence of events.
On second and 12 at his own 23, Stewart hit Hines Ward who seemed to fumble. But the third challenge of the game (there were five, total) was issued by Cowher and the ruling on the field was overturned. On the very next play, Stewart fumbled the snap and Tedy Bruschi recovered. The Patriots had the ball first and 10 on the Steelers 35.
What looked like a golden opportunity for New England was squandered when Bledsoe threw three straight incompletes, one a behind-the-head flip ruled as grounding and negating a Steelers holding penalty.
Pittsburgh took over on its 32 and Stewart began to heat up, hitting Plaxico Burress and Troy Edwards for 15 and 17 yards. A pass interference call on Otis Smith sent Pittsburgh down to the New England 21 but from there the Steelers could only get to the 16 where they attempted a field goal. Then the fun began.
Brandon Mitchell shot through the line and blocked the kick. Troy Brown scooped up the ball on the 40-yard line and like it is something he does everyday, lateraled to Antwan Harris who took the ball 49 yards for New England's second special teams touchdown of the day. New England 21, Pittsburgh 3.
Pittsburgh wasn't the No. 1 seed in the AFC for nothing and it wasn't about to roll over. Stewart quickly marched his team downfield and with 5:11 left in the third, Bettis had burst into the end zone from 1-yard out to bring his team back within 11.
New England's next possession resembled the first quarter when both teams offenses struggled as Bledsoe was sacked on third and 12 back on his own 22. Ken Walter's ensuing punt wasn't particularly good and Pittsburgh had the ball back on the New England 32. Shortly after, it was Amos Zereoue from 10 yards out and the game was 21-17.
The Patriots bounced back and sustained a drive that started on their own 29. Yet another challenge, this one by Belichick, failed to overturn a third and three incomplete ruling on a Coleman attempt and Adam Vinatieri was called on for the first time in field goal duty. He made his 44-yarder to put the Patriots up by 7, 24-17.
The game was never in the win column for New England until Lawyer Milloy picked off Stewart with 2:02 left. Even Tebucky Jones' interception of Stewart was not enough as Vinatieri just missed a 50-yard field goal that would have put the Patriots up by 10 on the drive that resulted. The kick went wide left and Patriots Nation was still holding its collective breath.
But the Milloy pick and a Smith run for a first down sealed the game and sent the Patriots packing for New Orleans.
The first quarter saw both offenses start off slow. Stewart was off the mark and the Patriots, aside from a 15-yard completion to Brown, were equally ineffective.
The defenses, on the other hand, were a good reason for that. And when New England's dropped Bettis for a 3-yard loss on Pittsburgh's own 6 and then Stewart on the 3, the Patriots were guaranteed of good field position after Josh Miller's punt.
That's when Brown fielded the punt on his own 45, and took it to the house. Running right up the middle, it was if the Steelers coverage unit simply misjudged Brown's speed, as No. 80 was through the first wave in no time and had clear sailing to the end zone and a 7-0 Patriots lead.
The first quarter ended with Pittsburgh driving. A 34-yard scramble by Stewart had his team down to the New England 34. Passes to Bobby Shaw and Matt Cushing pushed them to the 13. Anthony Pleasant sacked Stewart for a 2-yard loss on second down and Stewart then threw incomplete on third, setting up a 30-yard Kris Brown field goal which the inconsistent kicker made to pull his team within four at 7-3.
The second quarter had two coach's challenges. The first was by Bill Cowher and a 19-yard completion to Troy Brown was overruled when the official said he never had control. Television replay seemed to say otherwise.
Belichick's challenge came on the Steelers next possession. Stewart threw long to Ward with Law in coverage. Ward came down with the ball and it was ruled on the field complete. It was clear from replay, however, that Ward did not have complete control and when he finally did, he was out of bounds. It was a big break for the Patriots as it would have set up the Steelers first and 10 at the Patriots 26.
Throughout the day, New England's defense was stout. Stewart had some success when his team went into its passing mode, but the Patriots picked him off three times.
On the day, Bledsoe was 10 of 21 for 102 yards and a touchdown. Tom Brady was 12 of 18 for 115 yards before he left the game.
Troy Brown led all receivers with 8 catches for 121 yards. David Patten had the lone offensive touchdown along with 4 catches and 39 yards.
Kordell Stewart was 24 of 42 for 255 yards, 3 picks and no touchdowns. Jerome Bettis was held to 8 yards on 9 carries.
Patriots.com will begin its Super Bowl coverage in New Orleans tomorrow – as soon as we get there!