Before each game this year, we’ll take a look back at some memorable matchups between the Patriots and the upcoming opponent. This week, we take a look back at the 2001 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh.
A week after a stirring overtime victory over the Oakland Raiders in the snow, the Patriots traveled to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the AFC title game. While the Steelers were a heavy 10-point favorite and were already making travel plans for the Super Bowl, the Patriots were truly looking like a team of destiny.
After an 0-2 start and an injury sidelined franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe, second-year signal caller Tom Brady led the team to an 11-3 finish, culminating with an AFC East division title and a first-round bye. The Patriots were playing their best football of the year, coming in on a seven-game winning streak.
You can watch highlights of the game here
Similar to this year, these were two teams anchored by their defense, as the Steelers came in with the 3rd ranked defense in the NFL while the Patriots were 6th, so it was no surprise that both offenses struggled out of the gate. Neither team was able to cross midfield through their first three possessions before the Patriots special teams made a play.
With the Steelers backed up inside their own 15, it looked like the Patriots would finally get good field position until Pittsburgh punter Josh Miller unleashed a 64-yard punt. However, Steelers gunner Troy Edwards was called for an illegal procedure penalty and Bill Belichick called for Pittsburgh to punt again. Side note: the most dangerous returns happen when a team needs to re-kick. Sure enough, Miller’s punt traveled right down the middle of the field and Pro Bowl returner Troy Brown ripped a 55-yard return right up the middle for a 7-0 lead.
The Steelers offense finally came to life thanks to a 34-yard run by quarterback Kordell Stewart, but they stalled in the redzone, settling for a field goal. Despite struggling early, Brady looked to be finding his groove as halftime neared and hit Brown for a 28-yard pass setting up 1st and 10 at the Steeler 40. However, Brady was hit low on the play and would have to depart with an injured ankle. Off the bench came Bledsoe who quickly connected three times with wide receiver David Patten, the last resulting in a touchdown and a 14-3 halftime lead.
Early in the third quarter, it was the Patriots special teams that struck again. Brandon Mitchell blocked a field goal attempt and Brown was on the spot to recover the ball. Before he was about to be brought down, he spotted Antwan Harris beside him and lateraled the ball, allowing Harris to race untouched for a touchdown. The Patriots had a 21-3 lead and looked to be heading to New Orleans.
Like the first half, the Steelers responded by marching right down the field before running back Jerome Bettis punched it in from one yard out. After a quick 3-and-out by Bledsoe and the offense, the Steelers offense was set up with good field position at the New England 32 and was able to score another touchdown to make it 21-17 heading into the 4th.
Desperately needing points, Bledsoe led the offense down the field, setting up a 44-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri for a 24-17 lead. The Patriots defense forced a punt and the offense again went to work trying to drain the clock. Facing a 3rd and 11 at their own 19, Bledsoe made arguably his best play of the day, lofting a pass down the right sideline to Brown for 18 yards and a first down. While they didn’t score, the Patriots were able to kill nearly 4 minutes and flip the field.
As desperation started to creep in, the Steelers started to lean on Stewart’s arm which wasn’t his best attribute. It showed as he was intercepted by safety Tebucky Jones at midfield, and it looked like the Patriots would wrap this one up. It may sound strange to hear this but with a chance to all but seal the win, Vinatieri missed on a 50-yard field goal, giving Pittsburgh one last chance. This time it was Lawyer Milloy who picked off Stewart, setting off a wild celebration for the Patriots at Heinz Field.
Significance of the game
With a win, the Patriots were headed to the Super Bowl for the third time in franchise history, and a week later they would have their first victory in the big game, stunning the heavily favored Rams, 20-17.
Brady’s injury set off a hot debate among New England sports talk radio about whether he or Bledsoe should start in the Super Bowl. Belichick went with Brady and that was the end for Bledsoe as a Patriot.
This started a rivalry with the Steelers that lasted throughout the 20-year run of the Brady-Belichick Patriots as the teams would meet again at Heinz Field three years later in another AFC title game.