As fine a season as Tom Brady is having for the Patriots this season, the latest chapter of Kordell Stewart's career has been just as phenomenal.
New England fans know too well what Stewart is capable of doing on the football field. In the 1997 AFC Divisional playoff game, he scored the game's only touchdown on a 40-yard scramble down the sideline. The score provided the margin of victory as Pittsburgh nipped New England 7-6.
Stewart had a game-high 68 rushing yards that day. He beat New England with his feet despite a dismal passing performance. In completing just 14-of-31 passes for 134 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, Stewart hardly proved his worth as a passer.
Things have changed. Stewart is a much improved player, and quarterback, in this 2001 season. No longer is in danger of returning to the slash role he held early in his career. He is a legitimate NFL quarterback, a guy going to the Pro Bowl at the conclusion of the season.
"He looks like he is having fun with this success, and he is definitely a threat in all phases of the game," Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy said. "As far as the defensive backs are concerned, we have to stay disciplined and not come off our men."
Of course, that will be easier said than done. Stewart had a remarkable season both running and throwing the ball. In the passing game he set personal bests with 266 completions in 442 attempts, 3,109 passing yards and a completion percentage of 60.3 percent. With targets like Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress he threw 14 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions.
Coupled with a strong running game, Stewart's play has made Pittsburgh's offense very dangerous. He has also been more dangerous than ever when he decides to tuck the ball away, running 96 times for 537 yards, both career highs.
"Kordell is an athlete back there with the ball," Milloy said. "Anytime you have a guy with the skills Kordell has, a guy who can throw for distance, can throw accurately and has a supporting cast that believes in what he does, he is what they are based around.
"After all those years of controversy, I think they finally said, 'Look, let's try to get people around him who understand how he plays, rather than trying to make him something that he is not.'"
Shedding a label
All season long, the Patriots have seemed to catch the breaks. From last Saturday's non-fumble call to David Patten maintaining possession of a loose ball while unconscious in Buffalo, things have fallen into place in odd ways for New England.
Be careful how you phrase it though. To the players, this season is not about destiny. To them, breaks, good or bad, are a part of the game. This team has earned everything they have gotten to this point.
"I just feel like we're a team that has a chance to do some good things," wide receiver Troy Brown said. "It's not about destiny for us. We just want to go out and play well. Anything that we get, we earned it. We're fighting our guts out to the end in every game."
Pittsburgh Head Coach Bill Cowher sees it the same way. Luck only brings a team so far, and you don't get one step away from the Super Bowl without creating opportunities for yourself.
"Let me say this, you only have four teams left and none of them are bad teams," Cowher said. "I think if you get to this point you can throw all the cliché's out. Everyone is looking at this as being two games away from having the opportunity to win a championship. That's all you can ask for in this business. [The Patriots] are playing well. All four teams left are playing well and it's going to be a challenge."
As far as Brown is concerned, the only left to do at this point in go to Pittsburgh and give the Steelers everything the team has. The rest will take of itself.
"That's what it's all about for us, just going out, playing as hard as we can and leaving our best game on the field," Brown said. "If that's not good enough, then we can accept that. If we don't go out there and play as hard as we can, as well as we can, that's not acceptable for us."
New England again had no players on the injury list. For the Steelers, linebacker Earl Holmes (knee) is questionable and fullback Jon Witman (foot) is probable.