PITTSBURGH - The New England Patriots needed Drew Bledsoe after all to reach the Super Bowl.
Playing for the first time since Week Two, Bledsoe stepped in for an injured Tom Brady DVD and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass and Troy Brown starred on special teams as the Patriots posted a 24-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game.
"It's quite a credit to Drew," said Brady DVD, who sprained his left ankle late in the first half after being hit by safety Lee Flowers and did not return. "For 14 games, he's watching and he comes out in the biggest game of the year and does a great job."
"You never want something bad to happen to another quarterback, but you always have to be ready," Bledsoe said.
The Patriots (13-5) will meet the the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI Sunday, February 3 at New Orleans. New England suffered a 24-17 loss to the Rams on November 18.
Ironically, the Patriots' previous two Super Bowl trips were also in New Orleans in 1985 and 1996.
By turning around a team which finished in last place in the AFC East with a 5-11 record last season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick DVD escaped the massive shadow of Bill Parcells DVD.
"We gave up a first-round pick (two years ago) for Bill and it's the best deal I've ever done," Patriots owner Bob Kraft said.
"This is not about me, this is all about our team and everybody contributed to this," said Belichick, who was a defensive assistant under Parcells when the Patriots last reached the Super Bowl.
Bledsoe was the quarterback on that Patriots team, but suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest after being hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in a September 23 game and lost his starting job to Tom Brady DVD, who led the Patriots to a 12-3 record, including a playoff win over Oakland last week.
But Bledsoe's opportunity came when Tom Brady DVD limped off the field in the second quarter after hitting Brown with a 28-yard pass to the Pittsburgh 40 just after the two-minute warning with the Patriots nursing a 7-3 lead.
And the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback who was relegated to a backup role made an immediate impact, hitting David Patten three times for 36 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown with 58 seconds left in the half.
"It's been a difficult year for me personally," Bledsoe said. "It started with the loss of my quarterbacks coach (Dick Rehbein) in training camp and then the injury (in Week Two). But hey, I was prepared to try and win the game."
"It's nice to be able to have a Drew Bledsoe to bring into a game when your starting quarterback goes out of the game," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
Although he directed only one scoring drive in the second half and was just 10-of-21 for 102 yards, Bledsoe made several big throws and did not commit any turnovers while Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart made the big mistakes, getting intercepted twice in the final four minutes on balls that were badly overthrown.
Snubbed by the Pro Bowl despite catching 101 passes this season, Brown returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and recovered a blocked field goal and lateraled it to Antwan Harris for another score in the third quarter to help the Patriots build a 21-3 lead. He also caught eight passes for 121 yards.
"You can call us Cinderella, you can call us destiny's team, but today we proved we're the best team in the AFC," said Brown, who also was a member of the Patriots' last Super Bowl team. "We came into an hostile environment and showed what we're made of. We deserve this."
This was Pittsburgh's fourth AFC championship game in the last eight years under Cowher, but three have resulted in losses -- all at home.
"There's not much to say. Words right now aren't going to cure the hurt that exists," Cowher said. "It's tough. We had a special team but we didn't finish it the way we wanted."
The Steelers (14-4) had the best record in the AFC, but failed in their bid to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995. They previously lost the AFC championship game at home in 1994 and 1997 under Cowher.
Known as a master for devising effective defensive game plans, Belichick found a way to bottle up a Pittsburgh running game which averaged a league-best 173 yards a game and produced 154 against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens last week in the divisional playoff.
But even with the return of Pro Bowl back Jerome Bettis, the Steelers were unable to establish a running game, placing more pressure on Stewart, who threw for 255 yards but committed four turnovers.
Bettis, who missed the last five games of the regular season with hip and groin injuries and last week's playoff win with an adverse reaction to a painkilling injection, rushed for eight yards on nine carries, including a one-yard touchdown.
"The injury had nothing to do with it. There was just nowhere to run," Bettis said.
The Steelers had 58 yards on the ground, but Stewart accounted for 41 of them on eight carries.
New England cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith also succeeded in keeping Steeler receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress out of the end zone. Ward had six catches for 64 yards and Burress caught five passes for 67 yards.
"We just showed physical receivers what physical cornerbacks are like," Smith said.
Now the debate will rage as to who will start at quarterback for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. Tom Brady DVD was effective before he departed, completing 12-of-18 for 115 yards.
"I have a little bit of swelling, but hopefully I'll be ready to roll," Tom Brady DVD said. "I'd have been ready to come back into this game but Drew was doing a great job. I'll be prepared if they tell me to start."
Brown made the first big play of the game when he fielded a punt at his 45, broke a tackle near midfield and raced through a huge hole in the middle for a touchdown with 3:42 left in the first quarter.
"It was supposed to be a left return, but they overplayed it," Brown said. "I saw a seam up the middle, broke a tackle and we had the blocking."
It marked the second straight week the Steelers yielded a punt return for a score and came after Troy Edwards negated a 64-yard punt by Josh Miller because he intentionally stepped out of bounds while running downfield in kick coverage.
The Steelers responded with a 10-play, 65-yard drive which featured a 34-yard run by Stewart and resulted in a 30-yard field goal by Kris Brown 1:27 into the second quarter.
Tom Brady DVD made his best pass of the day on the play in which he was injured, hitting Troy Brown over the middle for a 28-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 40.
While Tom Brady DVD limped off, Bledsoe raced on the field and showed no signs of rust. He immediately connected with Patten on a 15-yard pass to the 25 and scrambled to his right for a four-yard gain before he was drilled out of bounds by cornerback Chad Scott on a play that was eerily similar to the Lewis hit.
But Bledsoe shook this one off and connected with Patten on a 10-yard pass before finding Patten again in the right corner of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown, giving the Patriots a 14-3 lead.
On Pittsburgh's first possession of the second half, Stewart fumbled a snap and linebacker Tedy Bruschi recovered for the Patriots at the Steelers' 35. But the Patriots failed to take advantage of the turnover as Bledsoe threw an incompletion on a 4th-and-8 play.
The Steelers then drove 52 yards to the New England 16, but had to settle for a field goal attempt and the Pats received another huge play from its special teams.
Kris Brown's kick was blocked by Brandon Mitchell and Troy Brown raced to recover the ball and ran 11 yards before lateraling to Harris, who raced 49 yards for a touchdown, increasing New England's lead to 21-3 with 8:51 left in the third quarter.
"It's hard to overcome two big returns like that in the kicking game," Cowher said. "It was a hole we dug ourselves and a hole we couldn't get out of. But I'm proud of the way we fought back."
The Steelers responded with an eight-play, 79-yard drive which featured a 24-yard pass to Ward and a 19-yard screen to running back Amos Zereoue before Bettis scored on a one-yard run with 5:11 left in the quarter.
After the Steelers defense held and linebacker Jason Gildon sacked Bledsoe on a third-down play, Edwards returned the ensuing punt 28 yards to the New England 32.
Four plays later, Burress caught a 10-yard pass and Zereoue followed with an 11-yard touchdown run up the middle, pulling the Steelers within 21-17 with 1:29 left in the quarter.
With the momentum on Pittsburgh's side and the crowd at Heinz Field roaring, Bledsoe stemmed the tide with some key passes in a drive which resulted in a 44-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri 3:48 into the fourth quarter.
Bledsoe fired a 15-yard pass over the middle to Charles Johnson and connected with fullback Marc Edwards on a six-yard pass in the face of a blitz on a 3rd-and-3 play to the Pittsburgh 32. The drive stalled at the 26 before Vinatieri drilled the field goal.
Stewart made two critical turnovers down the stretch, badly overthrowing an open Ward over the middle. The ball sailed to safety Tebucky Jones, who bobbled the ball before cradling it and returning it 19 yards to the Pittsburgh 34 with 2:41 left.
But the Steelers' defense held and Vinatieri missed a 50-yard field goal wide left.
Pittsburgh took over at its 40 with 2:15 remaining. But after Stewart threw an incompletion, he sailed a throw over the 6-5 Burress and safety Lawyer Milloy made the game-clinching interception with 2:02 remaining.
"I'm disappointed, but we had a great season," Stewart said. "You go 13-3, you've got a lot to look back on. We came a long way."
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