PITTSBURGH - Quarterback Drew Bledsoe hoisted the AFC Championship trophy and pumped it three times on the podium as teammates, owner Robert Kraft, and coach Bill Belichick waved, pumped their fists, and soaked in an improbable moment in an improbable season.
Players were hollering and screaming with joy and happiness. Feelings of accomplishment, and some of revenge, flowed like the champagne that was tactfully absent as the Patriots celebrated a 24-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday at Heinz Field, putting them into Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans.
In the end safety Lawyer Milloy, one of several players who want to complete unfinished business from the Super Bowl in New Orleans after the 1996 season, got his respect from the perhaps-overconfident Steelers.
Belichick got to the Super Bowl with the Patriots again, this time as the head coach, not a Bill Parcells underling.
Bledsoe, who entered the game in the second quarter in relief of Tom Brady (injured ankle) and led the Patriots to a quick score and eventually a victory, just stood crying. The tears were flowing freely, and when he caught a glimpse of his father, Mac, he lost it completely.
From Bledsoe nearly dying on a hit by the Jets' Mo Lewis, to losing his job to Brady when he was ready to play, to returning after four months of inactivity to direct the Patriots in the AFC Championship game?
Quite a fairy tale, folks.
"You never disrespect anybody," said Milloy, who chastised the Steelers at a press conference Friday for talking about Super Bowl plans and overlooking the Patriots.
"You just make it hard on yourself. I'm just surprised the veterans on that team didn't shut the younger guys' mouths on that team. It was a momentum-builder for us. We rallied around that, and in the end we were the AFC champions."
Kraft said he congratulated his team on a great season.
"This is the true meaning of team," said Kraft. "We never talk about individuals here."
He did say of Belichick, "[He] was worth everything we gave up to get him two years ago."
The message was sent early - at the coin toss, in fact - when the Steelers' Jerome Bettis started to talk trash. Bryan Cox, a Patriots defensive cocaptain, got in his face immediately.
"I just wanted to make a point that we were not backing down," Cox said. "He started talking about how he was ready and all this and that, and I said, `Jerome, this ain't what you're gonna be looking for today.' "
When Josh Miller banged a 47-yard punt late in the first quarter, the Patriots' Troy Brown fielded it and raced up the middle, going 55 yards for a touchdown. Adam Vinatieri's extra point made it 7-0 with 3:42 remaining in the first.
"It was supposed to be a left return, but the guys overplayed it to the outside, and I saw the seam up the middle and we just hit it," said Brown, who knew he had to make a big play and got a nice block by Tedy Bruschi. "It was just a great play by the punt-return team."
Just before the punt return, Brown's third for a touchdown this season, Miller had lofted a 64-yarder that Brown opted not to field and allowed to scoot past him to the 23. But Steelers special-teamer Troy Edwards was called for running out of bounds, and the officials forced another punt.
Terrell Buckley had chased Edwards down the sideline, perhaps causing him to step out of bounds.
"It's not something I did by design, but if I can crowd him and make him go out, that's a legitimate call," said Buckley. "We got the re-punt and Troy did the rest."
The Steelers began their drive after Brown's punt return at the 24. On their second play, Kordell Stewart got loose for a 34-yard gain after hurdling Milloy in the backfield. That got the ball to the New England 38. Four plays later, he had the Steelers first and 10 at the Patriots 13. But New England's tough red zone defense stiffened, as Anthony Pleasant sacked Stewart for a 2-yard loss and then good coverage by Otis Smith on Plaxico Burress for an incompletion forced the Steelers to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Kris Brown.
Brady completed 12 of 18 passes for 115 yards before leaving the game. He faced constant pressure from linebacker Jason Gildon, who was all over the field. Late in the first half, Brady sprained his ankle when Lee Flowers crawled over a body and rolled into the back of his legs. No penalty was called.
Bledsoe entered with 1:40 remaining in the first half and hit David Patten on a 15-yard pass to the Steelers 25 for a first down. He was forced to run for 4 yards, and Chad Scott's big sideline hit, knocking Bledsoe way out of bounds, looked eerily like the Lewis blast in the second game of the season. The officials did not throw a flag, because even though Scott left his feet, Bledsoe was not yet out of bounds when he was crunched.
Bledsoe, who cut his chin on the play, got right back up, and appeared fired-up. He found Patten for 10 yards to the 11, and then threw a beauty of a TD pass to Patten in the right corner of the end zone with 58 seconds remaining.
His play after all that time off was nothing short of extraordinary.
"He gets very few reps," said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. "I'd say he should be proud. That's a pretty hard thing we asked him to do."
It was 14-3 at the half, and who could have scripted it?
Belichick was asked if Brady could have continued.
"He could have gone back out and played, but I just felt like the way things were going we were better at that point in time [with Bledsoe]," the coach said. "We were better with a healthy Drew Bledsoe with not knowing where Tom was with his injury."
Stewart drove the Steelers to the Patriots 16 in the third quarter, but had to settle for a field goal attempt. Kris Brown, who has been shaky this season, had a 34-yard attempt, but Brandon Mitchell fought through his blocks and came in with his hands up, blocking the ball. Troy Brown, the epitome of Belichick's "Be Alert" mantra during the week, picked up the loose ball and ran 11 yards before lateraling to safety Antwan Harris. He went the remaining 49 yards for the score, giving the Patriots a 21-3 lead.
"I saw Antwan coming, over my shoulder, and he was screaming my name," said Brown. "From there, I just wanted to make sure it was a lateral, and he did a great job. It worked out great for us."
Mitchell was screaming and laughing all the way down the field. "I had so much fun out there," the lineman said.
But the game was far from over.
With Bettis ineffective (8 yards on 9 carries), Stewart took to the air. He found The Bus on an 11-yard hookup, then connected with Hines Ward for 24. What turned into an eight-play, 79-yard drive was capped by Bettis's 1-yard run with 5:11 remaining in the third quarter, making it 21-10.
A momentum shift was in progress. On the next series, the Pittsburgh defense toughened. J.R. Redmond dropped a pass and Bledsoe was sacked by Gildon during a three-and-out series.
The Steelers got a 28-yard return on a 38-yard punt by Ken Walter to the New England 32. It took five plays and an 11-yard run by Amos Zereoue to make this a too-close 21-17 game late in the third.
Vinatieri nailed a 44-yard field goal early in the fourth, creating a 7-point advantage. Linebacker Joey Porter missed a Bledsoe pass thrown right to him, which he could have walked in for a touchdown, midway through the fourth.
A huge Tebucky Jones interception of Stewart foiled another Steelers attempt late. Vinatieri missed a 50-yarder to the left with 2:21 left, but the Patriots held on, compiling the first eight-game win streak in team history.
"We did it, we did it, Mr. Kraft," screamed Otis Smith as the game ended and the field became a sea of Patriots.
"We're going back again," yelled Willie McGinest. "And this time, we're gonna win it."