The New England Patriots have heard all the doubts for the last eight months, but on Monday night they proved yet again that they are the elite that the NFL has to offer. The Patriots christened brand new Gillette Stadium with a dominating 30-14 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in a rematch of last January's AFC Championship game.
The night included pregame ceremonies to open the new home of the Super Bowl champions. Owner Robert Kraft addressed the full house, ABC's Al Michaels led a program that included video highlights, fireworks, former President George Herbert Walker Bush, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the unveiling of the Patriots 2001 World Championship banner. But the real show on Monday night, was the 2002 version of the Patriots.
!() The Patriots took advantage of two early Kordell Stewart interceptions, turning the second into a Tom Brady to Christian Fauria four-yard touchdown to jump out to the 7-0 lead early in the first quarter. The Patriots took the ball at the Steelers 26 yard line, but needed the help of three Pittsburgh penalties, two coming on third down, to get into the end zone.
Pittsburgh answered strongly by putting together a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive of their own that culminated in a Stewart to Hines Ward 13-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 7-7.
After two Patriots punts and a punt of their own, the Steelers marched all the way from their own 34 down to the New England one-yard line and looked destined to take the lead. But following three more Steelers penalties, the New England defense forced a 39-yard Todd Peterson field goal attempt that sailed wide left.
The Patriots proceeded to march 44 yards on a nine-play drive that saw Brady complete six-of-eight passes to the Steelers 27-yard line where Adam Vinatieri kicked a 45-yard field goal for a 10-7 Patriots lead. The teams went into halftime with the 10-7 score in what was a less than perfectly played first half by both sides.
Similarly to how the Patriots came out of the half in the Carolina preseason game, the Brady-led Patriots exploded quickly in the third quarter. New England went 74 yards in just four plays capping the offensive spurt with a 40-yard, Brady to Donald Hayes touchdown. On the play, Patriots rookie wide receiver Deion Branch made a key block to spring Hayes for the score. The other key play on the drive was a Brady to David Patten 37-yard connection on which Patten made an impressive over-the-shoulder catch deep down the right sideline. Just 1:33 into the third quarter New England had the 17-7 lead.
Pittsburgh's possession on the following series was short lived, as running back Jerome Bettis fumbled on a 14-yard gain and Victor Green recovered for the Patriots on the Steelers 31-yard line. New England again took advantage of the turnover by marching 49 yards on nine plays for the score. The drive ended with a Brady to Branch 22-yard connection, on which Branch broke a tackle to scamper into the end zone for the New England 24-7 lead midway through the third. The rookie receiver finished the game tying for a team-high with six catches for 83 yards.
After the game the second-round pick out of Louisville said he was almost as excited about the block he made earlier in the game as he was about his own score.
"I felt like I had scored a touchdown [on Hayes' score]," Branch said. "I was real happy that Donald broke a tackle and that enabled me to get that block. I can't say it was easy out there, but we had a great game plan and we went out and did a pretty good job. I am just here to try and make plays."
The New England defense forced another turnover on the Steelers ensuing possession when recently re-signed Terrell Buckley intercepted his second pass of the game on a Stewart pass tipped by Tebucky Jones. Once again the Patriots capitalized by marching 39 yards on 8 plays to kick a Vinatieri 28-yard field goal for a 27-7 lead.
New England added another Vinatieri field goal, this time a 27-yarder midway through the final period to pull out to a 30-7 advantage.
The Steelers added a late Stewart rushing touchdown as time expired to finalize the game scoring and give the Patriots the 30-14 win.
The most exciting play of the game never officially took place. Willie McGinest sacked Stewart in the fourth quarter for an 11-yard loss. On the play Stewart appeared to fumble. McGinest jumped off Stewart and seeing that teammate Roman Phifer was about to recover ball, McGinest turned and blocked Steelers running back Amos Zereoue, apparently springing Phifer for a 58-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh challenged the play and Stewart was ruled down by contact, but the heads-up play by McGinest was impressive nonetheless.
A predetermined part of their game plan, the Patriots focused on the passing game. Utilizing the no huddle for some stretches, the team ran 25 consecutive pass plays at one point in the game. … Joe Andruzzi started at left guard, Mike Compton at center and Damien Woody at right guard. The guards rotated at times in the game with Adrian Klemm seeing action at left guard and Andruzzi seeing time on the right side. … Brady finished the game completing 29-of-43 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns. … The Patriots won the turnover battle five to one. … The flags were flying in the game. The Steelers were penalized 13 times for 112 yards and the Patriots 7 times for 88 yards. ... The Patriots anounced that they had released cornerback Tommy Knight prior to the game. ... The game inactives were Kevin Faulk, Ted Johnson, Stephen Neal, Greg Robinson-Randall, Tom Ashworth, David Givens and Rohan Davey was the third quarterback