New England proved to be special in a 24-17 victory over Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
PITTSBURGH -- Poor special teams play, the Achilles' heel in an otherwise impeccable 13-3 season, brought the Pittsburgh Steelers' march to Super Bowl XXXVI to a screeching halt Sunday.
The New England Patriots scored touchdowns on a punt return and a blocked field goal to upset the Steelers, 24-17, in the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field.
Next Sunday in the Louisiana Superdome, the Patriots will make their third Super Bowl appearance -- all in New Orleans -- against the NFC champion St. Louis Rams.
"It [was] a tremendous a game," the Patriots' second-year coach, Bill Belichick, said. "We are thrilled with the win."
The Patriots (13-5) won for the 10th time in their last 11 games. The only loss the AFC East champions suffered in that span was to the Rams in Week 10.
The Patriots, 5-11 a season ago, overcame controversy for the second week in a row. Sunday, they rebounded from the loss of starting quarterback Tom Brady to an ankle injury in the second quarter.
Super substitute: Drew Bledsoe, who lost his starting job after he injured his ribs Sept. 23 against the New York Jets, replaced Brady and completed his first three passes.
The third toss was an 11-yard touchdown to wide receiver David Patten in the corner of the end zone to give New England a 14-3 halftime lead.
But the touchdowns that surrounded Patten's score were the ones that killed the Steelers' dreams of their second Super Bowl appearance in the last seven seasons and a fifth NFL title.
Troy Brown excelled for the Patriots, returning a Josh Miller punt 55 yards for the first score of the game late in the first quarter.
The touchdown came one play after the Steelers' Troy Edwards was penalized for stepping out of bounds then returning to the field while Miller got off a 64-yard punt.
"We were looking to kick the ball out of bounds and it went right down the middle," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "And Troy Brown, like he has done all year, took it all the way."
Still trailing by 11 points early in the third quarter, the Steelers drove to the New England 16 when another misadventure occurred.
Big block: Patriots defensive lineman Brandon Mitchell broke through the line to block Kris Brown's 34-yard field-goal attempt.
Troy Brown scooped up the ball, ran 11 yards and, as Kris Brown closed in, tossed it back to Antwan Harris who ran the remaining 49 yards for a 21-3 Patriots' lead.
"The difference in the game, quite frankly, was the two big returns," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said after losing his third AFC title game at home in four tries. "That [blocked field-goal touchdown] was a big 10-point swing.
"It was a hole we dug for ourselves and it was a hole we could not dig out of," Cowher said.
The Steelers climbed back into the game with two third-quarter scoring drives engineered by the passing of quarterback Kordell Stewart.
But Stewart's two interceptions in the final three minutes sealed the Steelers' fate.
Free safety Tebucky Jones grabbed the first one at the New England 47 with 2:41 remaining.
Following Adam Vinatieri's missed 50-yard field goal attempt 26 seconds later, the Steelers' season ended when strong safety Lawyer Milloy stole a pass intended for wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
The Patriots stuffed Pittsburgh's vaunted rushing attack, limiting the Steelers to a season-low 58 yards on 22 tries.
Bus idled: Running back Jerome Bettis, playing for the first time since injuring a groin muscle on Dec. 2, was contained to just 9 yards on eight carries.
"Their defense did a great job against the run and they deserve a lot of credit," Bettis said. "We just didn't have any answers."
Bettis said his injury wasn't a factor. "There was just nowhere to run," Bettis said. "Special teams won the game. It's a sick feeling but you pick yourselves up and move on."
The Steelers' lone score in the first half came on Kris Brown's 30-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
Trailing 21-3, the Steelers made the game interesting by scoring two touchdowns in just more than four minutes.
Bettis' 1-yard touchdown capped an eight-play, 79-yard drive.
Edwards then returned a Ken Walter punt 28 yards to the New England 32. Five plays later, running back Amos Zereoue broke through the middle of the Patriots' defense for an 11-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 21-17.
Vinatieri's 44-yard field goal with 11:21 to go produced the only points of the fourth quarter.
"This has been a football team that has, all season long, answered the challenges and seized the opportunities that existed," Cowher said. "We feel like we let one slip away."
NE--Brown 55 punt return (Vinatieri kick), 3:42.
Pit--FG Brown 30, 13:33.
NE--Patten 11 pass from Bledsoe (Vinatieri kick), :58.
NE--Harris 49 blocked field goal return (Vinatieri kick), 8:51.
Pit--Bettis 1 run (Brown kick), 5:11.
Pit--Zereoue 11 run (Brown kick), 1:29.
NE--FG Vinatieri 44, 11:12.
Time of Possession30:5529:05
RUSHING--New England, Smith 15-47, Redmond 3-13, Brady 2-3, Edwards 1-3, Bledsoe 4-1. Pittsburgh, Stewart 8-41, Zereoue 4-11, Bettis 9-8, Ward 1-(minus 2).
PASSING--New England, Brady 12-18-0-115, Bledsoe 10-21-0-102. Pittsburgh, Stewart 24-42-3-255.
RECEIVING--New England, Brown 8-121, Patten 4-39, Edwards 4-26, Johnson 2-22, Wiggins 2-7, Redmond 2-2. Pittsburgh, Ward 6-64, Burress 5-67, Zereoue 4-50, Bettis 2-23, Edwards 2-16, Kreider 2-13, Cushing 1-10, Shaw 1-9, Tuman 1-3.
MISSED FIELD GOALS--New England, Vinatieri 50 (WL). Pittsburgh, Brown 34 (BL).