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It's Snap Judgment Day

AFC: Overlooked early in season, quarterbacks Brady and Stewart could be the key figures today in conference title game.

January 27, 2002|J.A. ADANDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Kordell Stewart said that for all of the movement and multiple looks of the New England Patriots' defense, it pays to focus on one thing: "That's the safeties and knowing where they are."

He'll definitely want to pay attention to the whereabouts of Patriot safety Lawyer Milloy during today's AFC championship game. Heinz Field security might want to keep an eye on him, too.

That's because Milloy invoked the name and antics of Mike Tyson during an otherwise innocuous day of interviews Friday.

"We don't feel like we're getting that respect, and we're fighting for the AFC championship," Milloy said. "And that's crazy, to me. I almost feel like Tyson did the other day. He's sitting there on the podium; us and Pittsburgh are sitting there on the podium. He's a former heavyweight champion of the world. Then they get up [and say] 'Lennox Lewis, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world' and how good he is. Mike is just sitting over there, watching all this, like we're doing watching Pittsburgh and the other two teams. And it's like, 'What about us?'

"What'd Mike do? He snapped. The only difference is, we're not going to do it on the podium. We're going to do it out there on the field."

Watch the legs, Steelers. Keep the helmets on and make sure the earholes are tight. Just in case.

The Patriots shouldn't have to result to such dirty tactics. Actually, what got them here was a by-the-book definition of the rules: a replay review that followed a strict interpretation of a "forward pass." That turned an apparent fumble by quarterback Tom Brady into a mere incompletion, and allowed New England to complete a comeback from a 10-point deficit against the Raiders to win, 16-13.

That apparently was enough to make them into a "Team of Destiny"--at least according to the line of questioning at their pregame news conference.

And that title apparently bothered the Patriots.

"When you say 'Team of Destiny,' I think that, to me, that means lucky," Brady said. "I don't think we are lucky to be here. I think that we are a pretty darned good football team and we've proved that."

The truth is, there's nothing fluky about a team making it to the conference championship when it has a Pro Bowl quarterback. Three of the NFL's four semifinalists have one, and the fourth might have the best playmaker at the position: Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb.

A great defense might be necessary to win a championship, as the Baltimore Ravens showed last year. But unlike the 2001 formula, this year quarterbacks have to do more than show an ability to hold onto the ball.

"It's an integral part of it," Steeler Coach Bill Cowher said. "That's a guy that's touching the ball, that's a guy that's had to bring you back. You go through a season, he's had to win some games for you. A quarterback is going to have to win a few games for you along the way. If you've got a guy that can't do that, at some point you're going to get exposed.

"I think what you see is the four teams that are still in it literally have quarterbacks that have won games by themselves during the course of the year."

But unlike McNabb and St. Louis' Kurt Warner, the AFC championship quarterbacks are two guys nobody predicted would receive accolades.

Stewart was underrated because his game had dropped off so dramatically since 1997. Brady was unknown because he started the season behind Drew Bledsoe on the depth chart. But after Bledsoe was sent to the hospital by a hard hit in the second game, Brady took over ... and took off.

He completed 264 of his 413 attempts for 2,843 yards and 18 touchdowns. He'll join the stars in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.

He'll also join the likes of Warner, Daunte Culpepper and Pat Haden as quarterbacks who took their teams to the conference championship in their first year as a starter. (Then again, any list that also includes Dieter Brock and Shaun King can't be considered too exclusive.)

"This is a very solid quarterback," Cowher said of Brady. "He's got a strong arm. He plays with great poise for a guy who's a first-year starter. I'm very impressed."

The Patriots have not given up more than 17 points in any of their last seven games. Not coincidentally, they've won them all.

But now they face the Pittsburgh powerhouse. As Patriot Coach Bill Belichick noted, the Steelers have outgained their opponents by "almost a mile" this season, 5,887 yards to 4,137. They led the league in rushing and finished third in total offense.

And they've done it even though running back Jerome Bettis hasn't played since Dec. 2. Cowher said Bettis has recovered from the groin injury that kept him out the past five games and will be ready to go.

The Steelers maintained their winning ways thanks to fill-ins Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and Amos Zereoue. And because they're utilizing the mobility of Stewart and his good decision-making within the simplified offense.

"We're not as [run-oriented] as we've been in the past maybe, live and die by the run," Cowher said. "We feel like we can throw the ball very effectively if we have to. We certainly are built around trying to establish the run. That has never changed in any game that we go into."

NFL observers have projected the Steelers into the Super Bowl since the middle of the season. People kept waiting for Brady and the Patriots to expire, yet here they are.

Just don't tell them they were destined to be here.

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