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Nothing Easy About It

AFC: Bledsoe replaces injured Brady and leads Patriots to 24-17 upset of Steelers and a trip to the Super Bowl.


PITTSBURGH — After multiple reviews--not to mention numerous penalties, big-time special teams plays and some serious quarterback drama--the New England Patriots are still standing.

They're headed to the Super Bowl after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-17, in the AFC championship game Sunday at Heinz Field.

In a contentious game that featured five replay reviews and a lengthy argument about hash-mark placement, the Patriots won the tough physical battle at the line of scrimmage.

They held the Steelers, the NFL's top running team, to 58 yards rushing.

For the record, three of the five reviewed plays went in Pittsburgh's favor, one week after a highly controversial replay call helped New England beat the Oakland Raiders.

And the Patriots beat the heavily-favored Steelers even though they were penalized 12 times for 87 yards.

They won even though they scored one offensive touchdown.

But that touchdown pass was thrown by Drew Bledsoe, which was a whole story in itself. He hadn't played since he suffered a chest injury and internal bleeding in the second game of the season.

But when his replacement and New England's biggest hero for the last four months, Tom Brady, left in the second quarter because of an ankle injury, Bledsoe got his chance for redemption. He stepped in and finished off the drive with an 11-yard pass to David Patten.

Will Bledsoe get a chance to redeem himself for his four-interception game in New England's 35-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI? Patriot Coach Bill Belichick would not commit to a Super Bowl starter.

At least he gets to make a choice. There are no decisions left for Steeler Coach Bill Cowher, who has lost three of the four times his Steelers have hosted a conference championship game.

"The further you go, the greater the disappointment and the harder it hurts," Cowher said.

The performance of almost every Pittsburgh player on offense could be called disappointing. Quarterback Kordell Stewart's throws were off most of the day. He completed 24 of 42 passes for 255 yards and had three passes intercepted. His final two picks came on Pittsburgh's last two drives, when a touchdown and extra point would have tied the score.

Running back Jerome Bettis, playing for the first time in nearly two months, gained eight yards in nine carries. He said his injured leg had nothing to do with his performance.

"There was just nowhere to run," Bettis said. "The leg was 100%, but you can be 110% and you won't have success if there's nowhere to run."

That's a credit to New England's defensive front and Belichick's schemes.

Defensive end Willie McGinest, from USC, had a big day with six tackles (including a sack) and a pass deflection. Defensive backs Ty Law, Otis Smith and Lawyer Milloy also kept the Pittsburgh receiving corps in check.

New England's Troy Brown returned a punt 55 yards in the first quarter for New England's first touchdown.

Afterward, Cowher argued that, before the punt, the ball should have been put on the left hash mark instead of the right, and he said later that the placement prevented punter Josh Miller from kicking out of bounds.

New England led, 7-3, and was driving in the second quarter when Steeler safety Lee Flowers hit Brady below the knees from behind after Brady passed to Brown. Brady's knees buckled and he bent over backward, rolling on a left ankle he already had hurt. Then he went off, limping first toward the sideline, then to the locker room.

In came Bledsoe, playing for the first time since Sept. 23.

He connected with Patten for 15 yards, ran for four yards, passed to Patten for 11 yards, then found him in the back of the end zone to put the Patriots ahead, 14-3.

The pivotal play in the game came on a 34-yard field goal attempt by Pittsburgh's Kris Brown in the third quarter. Brandon Mitchell blocked the kick. Troy Brown tracked down the ball and ran 11 yards. As Kris Brown was trying to tackle him, Troy Brown lateraled to Antwan Harris, who went the remaining 49 yards for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

Stewart finally locked in on Pittsburgh's next drive, as the Steelers moved 79 yards, helped by two Patriot penalties. Bettis took the ball the final yard for the score.

A short punt and a 28-yard return meant Pittsburgh only had to go 32 yards on its next touchdown drive, capped by an 11-yard run by Amos Zereoue.

Pittsburgh had pulled to within four, but New England went back ahead by seven on a 44-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal.

From there it was a matter of holding on. Now it's about heading to the Big Easy.

They'll be underdogs to the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans. The Patriots will say they don't care what people say about them, but then they'll take note of every perceived slight. Safest bet this week.

"The spread was the same for us [Sunday] as when Pittsburgh played 1-12 Detroit a few weeks ago," Belichick said. "But really, we don't care about that. Our job's to play football."



It's Curtains for Steelers


The Pittsburgh Steelers' inability to run the ball against the Patriots left the offense in Kordell Stewart's hands. Stewart responded to the challenge with two costly interceptions in the fourth quarter. A look at the Steeler offense during the regular season (with NFL ranking) and against the Patriots:

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