Reborn QBs are focus of AFC finale

Sunday, January 27, 2002

PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, Tom Brady was a rookie, fourth on New England's depth chart at quarterback. Kordell Stewart was a once promising quarterback who had regressed while two Pittsburgh offensive coordinators tried to make him something he wasn't.

Today, when the Patriots and Steelers play for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, they will be at center stage.

Even with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, the Patriots were picked to finish no better than fourth in the AFC East. The Steelers, who won four of their last five games a season ago, were expected to be no better than third behind Baltimore and Tennessee in the Central.

But Bledsoe got hurt in the second game and was replaced by the unknown Brady, who went 11-3 as a starter. The Pats won their division at 11-5, the exact reverse of their record a year ago.

Stewart, under new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, returned to the form he showed in the "Slash" days of 1997 to lead Pittsburgh to a 13-3 mark, best in the AFC.

"Nobody can explain how we're doing it," said linebacker Ted Johnson, one of the holdovers from the 1996 New England team that improbably made it to the Super Bowl. "I know I can't put it into words."

In truth, they're not much different than the other two New England teams that have made postseason runs -- lucky, plucky and resilient like the 1985 and 1996 teams that made it to the Super Bowl before losing.

This edition of the Patriots lost on opening day in Cincinnati, then was beaten 10-3 at home by the Jets as Bledsoe went down with a chest injury when he was hit by New York's Mo Lewis.

In stepped Brady, who had moved up two spots on the depth chart ahead of departed veteran John Friesz and Michael Bishop, who was unable to harness his considerable talent.

The wins weren't always easy, but they were wins. New England reached 4-4, then went 7-1 in the second half of the season, the only loss a 24-17 decision to St. Louis in a game they could have won. Brady threw for 2,843 yards, 18 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions and, most important, was allowed to keep the job when Bledsoe was deemed healthy, the most important decision of the season by coach Bill Belichick.

"He handles all situations pretty consistently. That is a real strong point for him," said Belichick, who himself has blossomed as a coach after being 42-56 in six seasons in Cleveland and New England. "We have been ahead and have had to manage the game and try to run out the clock; we've been behind and had to come back; we've had 2-minute drives. He has been put in a lot of different situations and I think there is a certain steadiness to that performance."

Stewart has had a different role.

Pittsburgh's defense was upgraded this year to include Kendrell Bell, an inside linebacker who won defensive rookie of the year honors. The team expected to win with defense and the running of Jerome Bettis.

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