2001 AFC Championship Game: The Beginning of New England Dominance
Sunday January 27, 2002
Heinz Field Press Box Buffet Room
The No. 1 seed Steelers are hosting the No. 2 Patriots, only the 10th time since seeds were established in 1975 that Nos. 1 and 2 have met in the AFC Championship.
I'd say history is the last thing on the minds of the players and coaches; the winner goes to the Super Bowl.
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 pm here at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Prediction? I'm looking for 24-10, Pittsburgh.
I have to pace myself, so I walk from the table to the west window of the press box buffet area, my desk for the day.
From that window, I see the Carnegie Science Center I used to visit with my wife and daughters. To the west of the Science Center is the Ohio River. South of the Ohio is the Monongahela River, which joins with the Allegheny River not far from here.
I think of thousands of years past, when early man navigated the confluence, claiming women and food and property. They joined forces with other men and fought to the death to protect from invading forces what is rightfully theirs.
Sounds like football.
After taking one more glance at the press box, I return to my chair near the buffet where I will watch the game on television. It's like being in my family room, without the buddies and the beer.
Disappointment is mounting as we approach game time. My working press pass affords me this section of table and a chair out here while the action is in there.
The buffet room is filled with guys like me settling in as well as others getting their last colby and wafer before going to work in the press box. Three men have sat down near me, two across the table and one beside me. They're having a conversation.
"It's too crowded in there," the guy beside me says, pointing to the press box. "They've given me a high chair, for Chrissake! I'm staying here near the food."
Wow. I pounce.
Turning to the guy, I say, "Excuse me, but I'll trade you this spot for your high chair."
Sensing I am a raw rookie, he pauses. "Let's go," he finally says.
I follow him to the press box, climb the stairs behind him, and turn right. Three high chairs down is mine.
"This okay?" he asks.
We trade credentials and shake hands. He disappears.
I am here!
Against all odds, lucky as a buck who finds himself in a herd of doe, I have arrived in the press box and will work here for the duration of today's AFC championship game.
How cool is this? I just saw the legendary Will McDonough, recently retired from the Boston Globe, two rows down. I don't recognize anyone else, but the large guy directly in front of me seems to be an expert and just said Pittsburgh 24-10 into his cell phone. It makes me nervous when people agree with me.
My high chair sits in front of a shelf which serves as my desk. I doubt I will use it since I would have to turn away from the field to do so. Small price to pay; I am here.
The younger fellow to my right in his high chair is wearing a white shirt, a red paisley tie, dark slacks, and black Allen Edmonds wingtips. We nod hello and introduce ourselves. He's Brad from the Boston Globe.
In the high chair to my left is a guy with a trimmed beard, dressed in a brown corduroy jacket and tan slacks with penny loafers, a blue oxford shirt, and a navy knit tie, looking like a hip psychology professor. He's Donald from the Nashua Telegraph in New Hampshire.
I tell them I'm from The Football Network, looking kind of winter-LA in my gray blazer, white denim slacks, Bass Weejuns, blue oxford button-down, and a solid purple tie. They don't know what The Football Network is, but they're polite. TFN: there goes the neighborhood.
I guess Pittsburgh is trying to pull a homer by placing a sports reporter from the Globe on a high chair. Worse, the three of us are located on the 15-yard line of the south end zone. No respect.
After pulling my cell phone out of my satchel to call my family, I dial the home number. Someone answers on the second ring.
It's my wife. "Hey, sweetheart, I'm in the press box!"
"Wow! How'd that happen?"
"Long story. Traded a guy my buffet ticket for his high chair. Hey, I can see the CBS analysis crew from here. Jimmy Johnson's hair really is plastic. Jim Nantz is very dapper, and Leslie Visser is as pretty as...well...Jim Nantz."
Right about then, a tall, thin man turns to me directly and glares into my eyes, as if to say, 'act like you've been here before.'
"Better go. Love ya."
"Love you, too, Rick Reilly."
I stow the cell phone back in my satchel and pull out the legal pad to review my keys to the game.
Both teams have been out on the gridiron for pregame warm-ups. Jerome Bettis has been on the field for a while, trying to loosen up his injured groin with hurdler hops.
The Steelers need a ball-control, time-of-possession running back. The shifty Amos Zereoue can't offer that. Jerome has to suddenly get healthy or play in pain.
Next, there can be no special teams screw-ups or lapses of concentration, as the Steelers are wont to do. Pittsburgh lost to Baltimore this season on missed field goals. Then, the same Ravens team popped a punt return for a touchdown in last week's playoff game. Worse, New England's Troy Brown has taken two punts back for scores just this season. Man, the Steelers have to bring their best to the kicking game.
Also, quarterback Kordell Stewart has to be cool. Denver picked Stewart three times in the last AFC championship game played here in 1997. In fact, Kordell has already begun his perennial late season swoon, throwing seven interceptions in the last three games. The Steelers really need Kordell to play mistake-free football today, unfortunately against a very opportunistic Patriot defense.
Wideout Plaxico Burress has to get involved. He's a big, athletic target. He has five touchdown catches in the past five games. However, with exception to the Monday night game here against Tennessee, he tends to play so young. It would be nice if Plax were to have a Hines Ward type of game.
Speaking of Hines Ward, the Steelers need his leadership today to make sure Kordell and Plaxico play 60 minutes.
Finally, Pittsburgh needs to have its 3-4 defense in high gear, blitzing with both Jason Gildon and Joey Porter, keeping the young Tom Brady off-balance and rattled. I've heard Brady is going to the essentially meaningless Pro Bowl, and he's playing well enough to lead a seven-game winning streak into Heinz, but this is the biggest game of his nascent NFL career.
In sum, the team that wins the time-of-possession game has the inside rail to the AFC Championship.
If all this good stuff happens to the Steelers, that guy below me and I will see that 24-10.
Hell with it...Pittsburgh or New England: the winner of this game will hold the Lombardi Trophy high.
There are several well-placed televisions hanging from the ceiling of the press box so we can see what you at home are seeing. The TVs turn on just as CBS hands the game over from Nantz's crew to Greg Gumble and Phil Simms. It's visual only; the mute buttons have been pressed.
"Mute" is the appropriate word. There are no Steeler cheers and Patriot birds in the press box. It's as quiet as an office, because it is an office. I am now an objective member of the professional working press. Despite being the huge Steeler fan, I must keep my comments and my catcalls to myself.
The teams appear. Boos rain upon New England, but Pittsburgh is greeted with screams and cheers and a sea of yellow Terrible Towels spinning all through the lower level, the club level, and the cheap seats. It's an awesome sight. However, I know what they're thinking, because I'm thinking it, too. This could be a coronation.
Recording artist Donnie Iris is scheduled to sing The Star Spangled Banner, after which will be an F-14 formation flyover. Donnie is of 1981 "Ah, Leah" fame. He's from nearby Ellwood City and now lives in Wexford, 10 miles down the Ohio from downtown.
As the local boy belts it out, all members of the working press stand and place their right hands over their hearts. Writers are typically jaded, but with the events of September 11 always present, we're reverent. This has been one NFL season during which the priorities have not been with the action on the field.
New England's game captains won the coin toss and elected to receive. Pittsburgh's captains elected to defend the south goal, sending the Patriots to kick field goals into the treacherous open end early.
Ed Hochuli, the big and buff man himself, is the referee. I'm a part-time weightlifter, working out with 135 pounds at three sets of eight reps on the overhead press. It's difficult to look like Mr. Hochuli, but he seems to pull it off.
The betting lines have Pittsburgh as 9 1/2 point favorites. That's about right.
4:05 remaining in the first quarter, no scores.
The teams have basically traded punts for almost 11 minutes. There have been some good hits, as one would expect from these two teams. There have also been four penalties, a sizable number for a quarter that's not quite ended.
With exception to a big first series for the Steelers during which they abused the Patriots' O-line and Tom Brady, little has tilted either way.
The crowd is in the game with unprecedented Heinz Field noise. They are stoked.
It's 4th-and-6 at the Steeler 13. Punter Josh Miller of Pittsburgh unleashes a howitzer of a punt inside the New England 30-yard line over Patriot Troy Brown's head. Something unusual happens; Steelers' wideout Troy Edwards ran unforced out-of-bounds on the punt coverage. Flags fly. That's illegal procedure, a five yard penalty against the Steelers back to the Pittsburgh 8-yard line.
The play will be repeated at 4th-and-11. Pittsburgh head man Bill Cowher is directly in Edwards' face. He's giving him some coaching advice...at high volume, laced with a lot of saliva.
Josh Miller sets up for his second punt in as many minutes. He's even closer to the open end of the stadium. The snap is perfect, the punt is launched to midfield, not nearly as far as the original punt.
Troy Brown catches the spiraling kick. He runs left, then sharply cuts upfield and, like water down the culvert, takes it in nearly untouched for score. Patriot Adam Vinatieri knocks the extra point through and it's 7-0 New England, that quickly.
End of 1st quarter, New England up 7-0.
The quarter ended as Pittsburgh was driving, with a 1st-and-10 situation on the New England 13.
A pretty, brown-eyed college woman dressed in black smiles as she handed me a sheet of paper. On it is the NFL.com GameBook play-by-play 1st quarter summary. This is handy. Pittsburgh leads in first downs 6-1. Pittsburgh leads in time-of-possession 9:28 to 5:32. However, as the old cheer says, look at the scoreboard and see who's behind.
The drive-in-progress is, according to the summary, all Kordell Stewart. The Steelers' QB was 4-for-4 passing for 27 yards to four different receivers. His Slash reputation emerged as he took off up the middle for 34 yards to the New England 34.
13:44 remaining in the second quarter, New England up 7-0.
Pittsburgh's drive stalls at the Patriots 11. Bill Cowher sends kicker Kris Brown in. Punter Josh Miller will hold and Mike Schneck is the long snapper.
The kick goes through, the fans go wild. I can breathe because the whole thing was rather uneventful, even in the dreaded open end of the stadium. However, Cowher had to settle for a short field goal, a 30-yarder by Kris Brown.
It's now 7-3 New England.
The score was only three points, but the Steelers proved they can hold and move the ball: I counted 10 plays for 65 yards in just over five minutes.
1:58 remaining in the second quarter, New England up 7-3.
Four more punts punctuated the action that turned into inaction as, during one 30 second interval, both Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick on separate occasions threw out the red flag.
Both times each team completed a pass for a nice gain, both completions were challenged, and both were reversed. The replay tapes run on the TVs here. They were good reversals. We have the technology, but, man, does it take a while.
Pittsburgh went 3 and out and gave the ball back to New England after a Patriot time-consuming drive—over 5:30—ended in a punt. It's 3rd-and-8 at the New England 32. Tom Brady's back in the shotgun, gets the snap, waits, and ropes one to Troy Brown...and Brady's down.
The replay shows Joey Porter hitting Brady on his left leg, looking as if he bent Tom's knee in a way it wasn't supposed to be bent. Coach Belichick calls time out. Trainers are on the field.
The pass was completed to Troy Brown for 28 yards to the Pittsburgh 40. Tom Brady hobbles off, done for the day. For a few seconds I have forgotten who the backup is...until...I'll be damned, it's the 106 million dollar man himself, Drew Bledsoe.
Drew's in the huddle for his first action since suffering internal injuries after a hit against the New York Jets. Everyone is pounding his shoulder pads and slapping his ass. They're confident. I have a feeling this isn't good for Pittsburgh.
1:05 remaining in the second quarter, New England up 7-3
Drew Bledsoe immediately hit wideout David Patten for 15 yards.
Then, the Patriot bench collectively sucked in a breath along with every Patriots fan within a thousand mile radius as Bledsoe took off out of the pocket and ran right and out-of-bounds for 4 yards. That was the same play during which he was injured so badly. The man has cajones.
Drew completed another one to Patten, this time for 10 yards and a first down at the Steelers 11.
Bledsoe drops back and fires a quick one to Patten again, this time as the wideout is standing in the end zone. Touchdown, New England, Adam Vinitieri puts the extra point through, and the 9 1/2 point 'dogs are ahead 14-3 on the road against the No. 1 seed.
The crowd is just about as silent as 64,000 people can be.
Halftime, New England up 14-3
Kordell Stewart attempted the two-minute drill at the end of the half. The Steelers' quarterback was 3-for-4 at the New England 47 with 0:33 remaining, looking good.
He then threw three consectutive ugly incompletions before hitting New England's Terrell Buckley directly in the hands to end the second stanza.
The document given to me by the same brown-eyed college woman tells me that the Patriots held the ball for 10:32 in the second quarter, thereby taking Pittsburgh out of its game plan of ball control.
As well, very few at Heinz Field had planned on New England being up 11 at the end of the half.
The Pats had eight first downs in the quarter, six through the air. They converted 3-for-5 third downs and stopped Pittsburgh on third down four times.
In the half, Brady and Bledsoe combined for 15-for-21 with no interceptions. Kordell, in comparison, was 10-for-21 with one picked.
As CBS panned the sidelines late in the first half, it was obvious that the Steelers had that amazed look, like "how is this happening?" New England, on the other hand, was loose, but not celebrating...yet.
The Steelers aren't 14-3 for nothing, the Patriots are surely thinking. Bill Belichick is purely business, and that is reflected on his squad.
Sheryl Crow is the halftime entertainment. "I...want to soak up the sun, want to tell everyone to...lighten up."
The teams are back on the field. Pittsburgh fans give the Steelers a warm welcome. Warm? That's all? Jeez Louise.
Pittsburgh elected to receive. New England chose to defend the north goal, giving the Steelers the south end in the fourth.
12:55 remaining in the 3rd quarter, New England up 14-3
We saw Kordell just being Kordell. The Steelers' quarterback fumbled at the Pittsburgh 36. Patriots' linebacker Tedy Bruschi recovered and got a yard out of it.
Drew Bledsoe led a charge to the Steelers 32. New England stalled there and went for it on fourth down. Troy Brown was the target. Bledsoe missed.
The Steelers fans loved that.
8:51 remaining in the 3rd quarter, New England now up 21-3
The last 4:04 was surreal. Completely insane.
Pittsburgh took the ball at their 32. Kordell was magnificent, finding Plaxico Burress for 15 yards to the 47. Stewart completed a pass for seven yards to Troy Edwards, converting a third down.
The quarterback got lucky when the Patriots' Tebucky Jones picked a pass that was called back for defensive offsides. Then the next play a defensive pass interference penalty was enforced to the New England 21.
Kordell ran up the middle for five yards. Another incompletion took Pittsburgh to a fourth down situation at the Patriots 16.
Kicker Kris Brown and holder/punter Josh Miller ran on the the field to attempt a 34-yard chip shot.
Mike Schneck snapped the ball, Josh Miller caught it, placed the tip of the ball on the ground, spun the laces away, and Kris Brown booted it.
New England's defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell burst his 6'3'' 280 lbs. up the middle and blocked the kick before it had a chance to get over the line. The ball shot back to the New England 40, where Mr. Everything, Troy Brown, scooped it up.
When a field goal is blocked, kickers and punters are absolutely useless. Josh Miller and Kris Brown pulled a rodeo tackle on Troy Brown, both hanging on to his No. 80 jersey, slowing him down long enough so he could find Antwan Harris on approach from upfield.
Troy lateraled the ball to Harris, who carried it the remaining 49 yards untouched to the end zone. Adam Vinitieri kicked a point after, and the sure thing seemed almost impossible.
Only murmurs could be heard from the 64,000 in the seats.
The entire blocked kick/touchdown segment seemed to take minutes as it unfolded. Those in the press box emitted ohhs and ahhs of approval of a fascinating, intriguing, frustrating, and timely play.
1:29 remaining in the 3rd quarter, New England barely holding on at 21-17
It's as if the Pittsburgh Steelers became extemely angry, looking for revenge. The first drive started on their 21. Kordell was unusually accurate, hitting 4-of-5 for 63 of the 79 yards of the scoring drive. Jerome Bettis punched it in from the 1-yard line, giving Pittsburgh its first touchdown of the day. Kris Brown kicked the extra point.
It was New England 21-10, but the Steelers were dominating.
The fans in the stands went crazy.
New England went three-and-out. The Steelers Troy Edwards fielded a Ken Walter short punt, taking the ball on a big return, 28 yards to the Patriots 32.
From there, Kordell was 2-for-3, setting up Amos Zereoue for an 11-yard touchdown run. Kris Brown knocked the point after through.
New England 21-17. That's 14 points in a little more than seven minutes.
The crowd is fervid.
End of 3rd quarter, New England's lead barely alive at 21-17
A taller brown-eyed college woman brought the third quarter stats to me. Pittsburgh's game plan finally has wind at its back. They held the ball for 10:24, registered 13 first downs to New England's 1, and converted third downs on 3-out-of-4 tries.
Most importantly, the Steelers scored 14 unanswered offensive points. If they can remain neutral on special teams, score one more touchdown, and play shutout ball—all in the friendly confines of Heinz Field—Pittsburgh is going to the Super Bowl.
It sounds as if I'm asking a lot, but the Steelers have put it together like that several times this season.
11:21 remaining in the 4th quarter, New England up 24-17
With 1:29 remaining in the third quarter, Drew Bledsoe started a drive from his 29. He threw two completions to get the Patriots to its 39.
From there, Bill Belichick called for runs to bleed the clock. Five rushes and one pass completion later, Adam Vinitieri stepped in to nail a 44-yarder. It took 11 plays to melt down over five minutes, but New England showed they can play Steeler ball and play it well.
6:40 remaining in the 4th quarter, New England up 24-17
Pittsburgh punted to New England, pinning the Pats back to their 9-yard line.
In the first play from scrimmage, Drew Bledsoe read a blitz. The ball was snapped quickly after checking. Steeler safety Mike Logan streaked in along with linebacker Kendrell Bell, leaving corner DeWayne Washington on an island with David Patten.
Patten was the "hot" receiver, and amazingly blew past Washington to get a step early. Bledsoe launched a rainbow that missed Patten's fingertips by just a small unit of measurement. New England was that close to a 91-yard touchdown that would have broken the Steelers' back there and then.
Three plays later from the Patriots' 20, Bledsoe dropped back to pass. Joey Porter blitzed this time. Porter timed the pass perfectly, leaped to block it, and came within a fiber of intercepting it and waltzing into the endzone.
The fans groaned. In a game of almosts, these two plays are the summary of the action.
2:27 remaining in the 4th quarter, New England up 24-17
The Patriots' drive was stopped at their 37. Ken Walter punted to the Pittsburgh 22 with no return. Stewart went to work with 4:21 remaining, throwing two completions before putting one right in the chest of New England's Tebuckey Jones. That's two for Kordell. The boos began.
Bill Belichick kept the ball on the ground. Cowher called two timeouts to Belichick's one. Vinitieri lined up for a 50-yard attempt into the north endzone, but it was wide left.
Seven point games are usually pretty exciting, but this one is like watching water heat up to boil.
Game over, New England upsets the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-17
Kordell completed his choking hat trick of futility by throwing his third ridiculous pick of the day, this one to Lawyer Milloy. The Steelers walked off the field not dejected, but in shock, like they had survived an automobile accident that took three hours and forty-six minutes, the crawling duration of this afternoon's affair.
Most everyone in the press box stood to catch the elevator down to the postgame press conference. I popped my back several times to shake off the stiffness from sitting in the high chair.
I walked down the empty steps, not really knowing what to do next. Mike Mularkey, the Pittsburgh offensive coordinator, walked by, looking like a businessman who had a bad day. I nodded to him; he shook his head, like "no interviews, not now, not this year."
Still not knowing what to do, I headed for the men's room to wash up. Standing at the sink beside Phil Simms, I wanted to comment on the game, but what kind of comment can I offer a commentator?
I stood in the hallway, examining my notes. I had New England holding the ball for around ten minutes in the fourth quarter, completely taking Pittsburgh out of their game of attrition. The Patriots also converted 3-of-7 third downs, enabling them to hold the ball.
Walking to the elevator, I thought of the New England defense being the unsung heroes of the day. I know, I know...the Steelers won every statitical category except the score. That was the Patriots' D today: bend, but don't break.
Greg Gumble and Phil Simms showed up at the elevator. Phil made me think of Troy Brown. Simms, the ex-NFL quarterback, played his college ball at Morehead State in Kentucky, just an interstate hour west of Marshall. Morehead and Marshall; Marshall, Troy Brown's alma mater, Morehead's bitter rival.
Marshall is also the school for which Randy Moss played. Moss and Brown were not contemporaries, but they did play the same position, wideout.
A shorter, blue eyed college woman by chance walked to us and had some end of game stats sheets for Greg, Phil, and me. I turned directly to the individual numbers. In addition to the outstanding day Troy Brown had on special teams, he caught 8 passes for 121 yards.
We loaded into the elevator car; Greg Gumble, Phil Simms, and the citizen sportswriter, along with a couple of others. The doors shut and the car began to move lower. Phil said to Greg, "You didn't miss a call today." Greg thanked him.
I spoke up and said, "Excuse me, Phil, I'm a big fan."
"Just wondering," I said, "since you're from Morehead, and after the game today, now who's the best wideout from Marshall University?"
Simms laughed, as did Gumble. "I guess it has to be Troy Brown," Phil said, still smiling. "He's the best wideout from a lot of places."
Sunday January 27, 2002
Home again, family room, with the family and a well-deserved Coors
ESPN on the television
Charleston, West Virginia
The talking head on ESPN tells us that New England is an 18-point underdog to the NFC Champion, The Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams.
“I say we should put 55 US dollars on the Patriots.”
“Betting sports in West Virginia is illegal.”
“I know, but one of my associates knows a guy by the name of Roman who runs book. He’s on the West Side and he’s trustworthy, she says.”
“Still, you don’t know where the—”
“The keys to the game.”
“The Patriots held the ball longer, especially in the fourth quarter when it had to happen.”
“Tom Brady was the young dude who was supposed to get rattled. Then, Drew Bledsoe got in there and the only one who lost his cool was Kordell.”
“Three picks. Three, hon. He should fear for his life, or he’ll at least be hung in effigy.”
“You know, that’s—”
“Plaxico caught just five for less than 70 yards. That’s not what the keys said.”
“The Patriots owned the trenches in the fourth.”
“No doubt, but—”
“But, Pittsburgh won most statistical categories. First downs, total net yards, average gain per offensive play, passing yards…”
“Everything except for rushing. Fifty-eight fribbling yards. That’s the real key. You have to control the run to win.”
“And, special teams. The Steelers were abysmal in the kicking game.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“It bears repeating. Fourteen points off the kicking game.”
“What’s going to happen next weekend?”
“We’re going to see another, more exciting game of attrition. The Patriots defensive backs and the linebackers are going to let The Greatest Show catch the ball. Then, they hammer them. By the fourth, the Greatest Show will have alligator arms and that takes Kurt Warner out of the game.”
“So, you want to call Roman?”
“You call. He’ll never believe a woman.”
“Yeah, you go, Mom.”
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