The AFC Championship game on January 27, 2002 featured the overachieving New England Patriots against the defensively-solid Pittsburgh Steelers. In their second season under Head Coach Bill Belichick, and coming off a 5-11 record in 2000, the Patriots started off 2001 at 5-5 before reeling off six straight wins to finish first in the AFC East at 11-5. A key development along the way had been an injury to QB Drew Bledsoe that resulted in unheralded backup Tom Brady moving into the lineup and remaining there even after the 29-year-old veteran had recovered. Overall, the Patriots were not an overwhelmingly talented team, but they did jell under Belichick’s coaching. They defeated the Raiders in a snowy overtime Divisional playoff game that featured a controversial reversal of an apparent fumble due to the tuck rule to advance to the conference title game.
The Steelers, in their tenth year under Head Coach Bill Cowher, came into the game as nine-point favorites. After missing the postseason in the three previous seasons, Pittsburgh went 13-3 in ’01 to top the AFC Central and gain top seed in the playoffs. Guided on offense by talented but erratic QB Kordell Stewart, the Steelers were adept at running the ball, although Pro Bowl RB Jerome Bettis had been slowed by a groin injury that had kept him out of action since Week 12. Still, they had two thousand-yard wide receivers in Hines Ward, another Pro Bowler, and Plaxico Burress. But the key to their success was the league’s top-ranked defense that featured linebackers Jason Gildon, Kendrell Bell, and Joey Porter. The Steelers had easily dispatched the defending league champions, the Ravens, in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
There was a crowd of 64,704 at Heinz Field, and they saw a quiet start to the contest as both teams traded punts back and forth. With just over four minutes remaining in the opening period, the Steelers had to punt from their own 13 and Josh Miller got off a 64-yard boot, but had to kick again when WR Troy Edwards was flagged for stepping out of bounds and returning to the field. It made a big difference as the second kick was returned 55 yards for a touchdown by WR Troy Brown to give the Patriots a lead.
In a series that extended into the second quarter, the Steelers drove into New England territory. After reaching the 11 yard line, Kris Brown kicked a 30-yard field goal to get the home team on the board. The contest again settled into a defensive battle until the Patriots took possession at their own 30 with less than three minutes remaining in the half. On the third play, Brady passed to Troy Brown for a 28-yard gain, but the quarterback was hit hard by SS Lee Flowers. Brady left the game with an injured left leg.
In to replace him was the quarterback who had been relegated to the bench, Drew Bledsoe (pictured at top). Four plays later, after hitting WR David Patten for gains of 15 and 10 yards and then running for four yards, Bledsoe threw again to Patten for an 11-yard touchdown. The Patriots were up by 14-3 at halftime.
In their second possession of the third quarter, the Steelers drove to the New England 16, but a 34-yard field goal attempt was blocked by DT Brandon Mitchell and Troy Brown picked up the loose ball, ran 11 yards, and then lateraled to DB Antwan Harris who carried it the remaining 49 yards for a TD.
Pittsburgh came back with a long 79-yard series in eight plays that featured Stewart completions to Ward for 24 yards and RB Amos Zereoue for 19 and culminated in a one-yard scoring run by Jerome Bettis. New England’s lead was cut to 21-10 with over five minutes to go in the third quarter.
The Steelers closed the gap even more following a 28-yard punt return by Troy Edwards to the New England 32. They went 32 yards, the final 11 coming on a run by Zereoue. It was a four point game heading into the fourth quarter.
A long, methodical drive by the Patriots added more points less than four minutes into the final period on a 44-yard Vinatieri field goal. The Steelers had plenty of time, but their remaining three possessions ended in a punt and two interceptions, by FS Tebucky Jones and SS Lawyer Milloy. Vinatieri missed a 50-yard field goal try in an effort to extend the lead, but it didn’t matter. The Patriots were AFC Champions by a final score of 24-17.
The Steelers had the edge in both total yards (306 to 259) and first downs (23 to 15). However, they also turned the ball over four times, to none by New England. Linebackers Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson did a great job of shutting down Pittsburgh’s running game, as the Steelers gained only 58 yards on 22 carries. Pittsburgh also recorded more sacks (four to three) and the Patriots hurt themselves with 12 penalties, at a cost of 87 yards, as opposed to three flags thrown on the home team.
In his relief effort, Drew Bledsoe completed 10 of 21 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Before exiting, Tom Brady was successful on 12 of 18 throws for 115 yards. Troy Brown (pictured below) had a big day, catching 8 passes for 121 yards, returning a punt for a TD, and contributing to the score on the blocked field goal. Antowain Smith rushed for 47 yards on 15 attempts.
For the Steelers, Kordell Stewart went to the air 42 times and completed 24 of those passes for 255 yards and no touchdowns along with three interceptions. He also led the club in rushing with 41 yards on 8 carries while the hobbled Jerome Bettis was held to 8 yards on 9 attempts that included a short TD and Amos Zeroue gained 11 yards and scored once on four carries, although he also caught 4 passes for 50 yards. Hines Ward had 6 pass receptions for 64 yards and Plaxico Burress gained 67 yards on 5 catches.
“I’ve done this for a long time and at times at a pretty high level,” said Drew Bledsoe of his performance off the bench. “I felt confident coming out. I’ve been working out and preparing for this exact scenario.”
Tom Brady was back for the Super Bowl and the upstart Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams in a stunning upset. They missed out on the postseason in 2002 but came back to win the first of back-to-back NFL titles in ’03. Pittsburgh again reached the playoffs in ’02 and lost in the Divisional playoff round.
The relief appearance by Drew Bledsoe marked the end of his nine-year career in New England. He moved on to the division-rival Buffalo Bills for 2002.