When no one in the football world will give you respect, you have to go out and take it. That's exactly what the New England Patriots did on Sunday as they continued their improbable dream season with a stunning, but oh-so-special 24-17 win over the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship Game.
All week the Patriots read about how they had no chance to win in Pittsburgh against the 13-3 home team seeded No. 1 in the conference. All week, they heard the alleged experts talk about how they were a lucky bunch. They took the slaps and the slights and walked into hostile Heinz Field and took it to the Steelers, suffocating their top-ranked rushing attack while dazzling the home fans with magnificent special teams play sparked by the amazing Troy Brown.
When the dust cleared, a shocked and overconfident Steeler Nation collectively canceled their New Orleans reservations and cried into their Terrible Towels as the Patriots marched on to the Super Bowl for the third time in franchise history.
"That definitely rubbed us the wrong way," Head Coach Bill Belichick said of the Steelers apparent travel plans to the Big Easy. "But it didn't put any points on the board.
"The spread was the same for us as it was when 1-12 Detroit came in here. But it is what it is. We don't care about that stuff. Maybe printing some of those T-shirts was a little premature," he added with a sense of satisfaction.
Doubting a Patriots team that has found a way to scrape out wins in every imaginable fashion was ridiculously premature. But the prognosticators watched in amazement as Len Dawson handed the 2001 Lamar Hunt Trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Belichick, who may be in the process of completing one of the best coaching seasons in history.
"That was a tremendous football game," Belichick said. "We're thrilled with the win and we're proud to be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. We've come a long way. The guys that believed in this team are the ones standing in that locker room."
The New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday, January 27, 2002.
Belichick certainly kept the team's short-term focus where it needed to be throughout the season despite adversity that included losing his starting quarterback in Week Two. Last week was no different as talk of the Super Bowl plans never made it into the players hands until they boarded the team plane for Logan Airport.
But the Hollywood script that spelled out this run to Super Bowl XXXVI wasn't complete until Drew Bledsoe was written into it. Of course, the Patriots long-time starter made a grand entrance when starting quarterback Tom Brady injured his leg with just less than two minutes left in the first half and the Patriots driving in their hurry-up offense.
Just as Brady was completing a 28-yard pass to Brown, Steelers safety Lee Flowers hit him in the lower leg, leaving the first-year starter to hobble off the field. Bledsoe stepped in after four months on the sideline and immediately completed his first three passes to David Patten with the final one resting in his wideout's hands in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-3 Patriots lead.
It was truly a storybook day for Brady, Bledsoe and the Patriots quarterback family. The duo, who have worked together in harmony all season even when it became difficult at times to do so, combined to complete 22-of-39 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions to earn the AFC title. It all came on the same day the team's honorary captains for the game were Pam Rehbein and her daughters, Betsy and Sarabeth — the family of the Patriots late quarterback coach Dick Rehbein, who died during training camp.
"I was pretty fired up," an emotionally spent Bledsoe said after the game. "Then I hit that first pass and took that first hit, which can sometimes help [shake off the cobwebs]. I've done this for a long time — at times at a pretty high level — but there can be some rust."
"No other team in the playoffs can say they have two Pro Bowl quarterbacks," safety Lawyer Milloy said, echoing his sentiments from earlier in the week. "We've been feeling Drew's pain all year. Any competitor who loses his job to injury ... you have to feel his pain."
So it was that Bledsoe stepped in, shook off the rust and did just enough to help his team capture its third AFC Championship.
"He's a pro," defensive end Willie McGinest. "Things happen and we have to be men about it. We said two weeks ago that we would need everyone in this locker room and today we did."
But while much of the focus falls on the amazing story that is Bledsoe-Brady, this game was won by a defense that stood strong against the NFL's best rushing attack and a corps of special teamers that won't be flying under the radar any longer.
Brown again showed just how valuable he is, rising to his highest level in the biggest game. The Patriots sparkplug caught eight passes for 121 yards, returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown and also scooped up a blocked field goal on the run and scampered 11 yards before lateraling it to Antwan Harris, who pulled away untouched the remaining 49 yards for a touchdown that made it 21-3.
"That guy is some football player," Belichick said of Brown. "He does the big things, but he does all the little things, all the unsung things."
Bledsoe, who always raves about Brown, called the special teams production "unbelievable."
"If there's a more valuable player to his team than Troy Brown is to this one, I don't know who it is," Bledsoe said.
Brown started the scoring after some early sloppy play by both clubs. While the Patriots were penalized a season high 12 times for 87 yards, it was one of Pittsburgh's three penalties that led to the game's ice-breaking score.
Steelers punter Josh Miller had been punting the ball away from Brown on his first two punts and did the same on his third boot of the first quarter. Brown let the ball bounce and it rolled down to the New England 23. But Pittsburgh's Troy Edwards was flagged for running out of bounds unforced while covering the punt, forcing a re-kick. On the ensuing punt, he drilled it down the middle and Brown caught it at his own 45, darted up the middle, broke a tackle and sprinted to the end zone for a 7-0 lead — his third return for a score this season.
Pittsburgh responded with a 65-yard drive, but had to settle for a 30-yard Kris Brown field goal to make it 7-3. It remained that way until Brady limped off and Bledsoe stepped in to throw his first touchdown pass since the season opener in Cincinnati on Sept. 9. That score made it 14-3 heading into the halftime locker room.
The Patriots extended the lead to 21-3, again courtesy of special teams. This time, the Steelers drove from their 32 to New England's 16 before calling on Brown for a 34-yard try. But Brandon Mitchell broke through the line and blocked the kick, and Brown scooped it up before flipping to Harris for the touchdown.
With 8:51 left in the third, Pittsburgh turned it on and began its inevitable comeback bid. With a dormant running game that produced just 58 yards on 22 attempts (only 8 of which came on Jerome Bettis' nine carries), the Steelers turned to the air, and quarterback Kordell Stewart responded.
First he engineered a 79-yard scoring march in just 3:40 with some clutch throws against soft coverage. Bettis completed the drive with one of his few positive gains when he pushed his way in from the 1 to make it 21-10.
The Patriots failed to make a first down and a poor Ken Walter punt was made even worse when Edwards returned the 38-yard kick 28 yards to the Patriots 32. Five plays later, Amos Zereoue scored on an 11-yard run to make it 21-17, and suddenly the Heinz Field-record crowd of 64,704 was alive again as the momentum swung toward Pittsburgh.
But New England didn't cave and the offense used 11 plays to get into Adam Vinatieri's field goal range. The hero of the Divisional Playoff win over Oakland delivered a 44-yard field goal to make it 24-17.
Two Stewart interceptions later — one to Tebucky Jones and the other to Milloy — and the Patriots were headed to the Crescent City for Super Bowl XXXVI.
"The third quarter was their best quarter all year," Milloy said, referring to the fact that Pittsburgh had outscored opponents 102-13 in the third quarter during the regular season. "They took their best shot. We don't panic. We know how to close out games."
Then as the Patriots pulled off the airport tarmac, there was Bledsoe and Brady, shaking hands with each other as they talked with the Rehbein family. It was a symbol of unity representative of the 2001 Patriots — the improbable champions of the AFC and a team worthy of the respect few are willing to give it. That's OK, though, because these Patriots are more than willing to take it without the blessing of the football world.
2001: A Super Bowl Sound Odyssey
An aural history of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The six-part podcast features interviews with over 20 players, coaches, media members and others who were there to witness this historic season, mixed with the iconic sounds that detailed every dramatic twist and turn of an unforgettable season. Every memorable moment from the 2001 Patriots season is revisited with new-found perspective 20 years later. It's a fresh and thorough look back at the team that started a football dynasty.
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