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Patriot Missiles

With lightning strikes from special teams and laser-guided passes from a resurgent Drew Bledsoe, surprising New England punched a ticket to New Orleans

He came bounding onto the field like a kid at the recess bell, high-fiving teammates as his heart did wind sprints. Seconds later Drew Bledsoe, the once and perhaps future quarterback of the New England Patriots, calmly got down to business and took back his team. Time to roll, he told himself. It's time to go out and play the game I love. He cracked a joke in the huddle, strode confidently toward the line of scrimmage and, from the shotgun formation, stared down the Pittsburgh Steelers' vaunted defense. Then Bledsoe flexed his sublime right arm and delivered a pass as meaningful as any he'd thrown in his nine-year NFL career.

Even before the ball spiraled into the hands of wideout David Patten for a 15-yard gain, Bledsoe felt the impact of his presence. Suddenly, with 1:40 left in the first half of Sunday's AFC Championship, a tentative standoff between two plodding offenses had been spiced with serious sex appeal. Suddenly a pair of Pro Bowl quarterbacks--Pittsburgh's struggling Kordell Stewart and New England's limping Tom Brady--seemed smaller and less vibrant. Suddenly the top-seeded Steelers fell back on their heels, and 64,704 fans at Heinz Field shrank back into their seats as though they'd seen a ghost. Which, of course, they had.

Suddenly a football-watching nation was reintroduced to one of the game's most commanding passers, a fallen star who had quarterbacked the Patriots to their last Super Bowl and was hell-bent on getting to another. Four months after suffering an injury that filled his chest cavity with blood and cost him his starting job, Bledsoe, 29, showed that he has what New England's third-string quarterback, Damon Huard, calls "extremely big cojones."

"This was the exact scenario I'd dreamt about and prepared for, and I've never been so ready," Bledsoe said. "I threw that first pass, and it felt as if I'd been doing it for a long, long time." By the time Bledsoe, tears streaming down his cheeks, took the last snap and knelt to seal the Patriots' 24-17 victory, the Brady Bunch had morphed into Drew's Crew, and conventional wisdom had been thrown out the window. Put it this way: When the Patriots square off against the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans on Sunday, the strongest arm in Super Bowl XXXVI may not belong to Kurt Warner.

Then again, the 6'5", 240-pound Bledsoe may be forced by coach Bill Belichick to resume his role as Brady's backup. With these Patriots, who knows what you'll get? "It's been a crazy, crazy year," Bledsoe says. "We don't have a lot of big names, but guys do their jobs, and we have become a team in every sense of the word."

Coming off a 5-11 season in 2000, Belichick's first as their coach, the Patriots were involved in more drama than Mariah Carey. There was tragedy too. In training camp 45-year-old quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein dropped dead from a heart attack. After the season began, players chafed at the disruptive antics of mercurial wideout Terry Glenn, whom Belichick suspended for the postseason. New England started the year 0-2, losing Bledsoe in the second game with what turned out to be a sheared blood vessel in his chest caused by a straight-on shot from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Teammates still shudder at the memory of Bledsoe, 20 pounds lighter after a four-day hospital stay, returning to the team looking, as Huard said, "practically ghostlike."

The Patriots were 1-3 when Brady, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan in the 2000 draft, rallied them from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the San Diego Chargers in overtime. That turned around New England's season, which ended with the Patriots' (13-5) winning their first AFC East title since 1997 and Belichick proving he is much more than one of the game's preeminent defensive strategists.

New England's unlikely rise, keyed by Brady's poise and productivity, stirred the emotions of even casual football fans. Consider the short, pudgy Englishman in a pink-and-black blazer who embraced team owner Robert Kraft last Thursday night in the bowels of Boston's FleetCenter. Referring to New England's thrilling and controversial 16-13 overtime win over the Oakland Raiders in the AFC divisional playoffs on the previous Saturday, the Brit told Kraft, "Robert, I went to bed in the third quarter thinking you'd lost, and I was so f------ pissed off. The next morning I turned on the telly and learned you'd won, and I felt such joy." Thirty minutes later it was Kraft who was euphoric. Gesturing toward the FleetCenter stage, where his friend in the pink-and-black blazer was crooning, "And I'm gonna be high-igh-igh as a kite by then," Kraft screamed, "I love Elton John. He's my alltime favorite entertainer."

Kraft is a man of uncommon faith. Although Belichick had only one winning season as the Cleveland Browns' coach from 1991 to '95, Kraft gave up a first-round draft pick to pry him from the Jets following the farcical press conference in which Belichick announced his resignation after 24 hours as Bill Parcells's designated successor.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the NFL was contemplating reducing the playoff field by four teams--a problem it ultimately solved by pushing back the Super Bowl a week--Kraft was a vocal proponent of preserving the 12-team postseason. During a phone conversation, one high-ranking league official asked Kraft, whose team had a losing record at the time, "What are you so worried about this for?" On Jan. 6, after the Patriots clinched a first-round playoff bye, Kraft called the official and said, "You were right--we didn't need to worry about getting in as a wild card."

Still, New England's success was bittersweet for Kraft, who adores Bledsoe and proved it by signing him to a 10-year, $103 million contract extension last March. Although Belichick, after Rehbein's death, began working closely with the quarterbacks, he and Bledsoe have a distant personal relationship. Before Sunday it was presumed that Bledsoe would be traded after this season. That's less certain now; what's clear is that Bledsoe, by supporting Brady and keeping his frustration to himself, retained his popularity in the locker room.

If Kraft is a father figure to Bledsoe, there's still no substitute for the real thing. Drew's parents, Mac and Barbara, missed the Jan. 19 Snow Bowl between the Patriots and the Raiders in Foxboro, Mass.--the first time at least one of them hadn't attended one of Drew's playoff games. Last Friday morning Drew's spirits were lifted when Mac called from their home in Montana to say he'd be flying to Pittsburgh. "We wanted to show Drew that it's not about how many touchdowns he throws but that we value him as a son and will support him no matter what," said Mac on Sunday as he clutched a game ball while standing in the Heinz Field parking lot. "I'm prouder of the fortitude he has shown in handling his benching than I am of anything he's done on the field."

Mac says he has relied on his son's emotional support in the past year, during which two of the elder Bledsoe's friends died and a third learned that he had cancer. "It's been a rough year for my old man, and watching me go through a difficult situation hasn't helped," Drew says. "Now that I'm a father, I understand how tough it is to see your kid struggle."

At his house in suburban Boston two nights before the game, Bledsoe was in a contemplative mood as he cooked a steak dinner for Huard. Before eating, the two quarterbacks sat at the dining room table sipping red wine--a 1999 Oregon Pinot Noir from Archery Summit, if you're scoring at home. Huard, a backup during most of his five NFL seasons, reminded Bledsoe, "You have to stay ready mentally, because you never know when you'll be needed."

That same evening Belichick, having completed a press conference at a Pittsburgh hotel, fretted over facing the Steelers, who had the league's top-ranked defense. "We obviously need to score, but I can't tell you where the points will come from," he said. "Maybe we'll capitalize on some turnovers or get a touchdown on special teams. If not, I just don't know."

The Patriots scored twice on special teams--Troy Brown, their undersized and underrated wideout, was the key to both touchdowns--and Bledsoe (10 for 21, 102 yards) did the rest. A popular, unselfish player, Brown (the anti-Glenn) produced the game's first points on a 55-yard punt return with 3:42 left in the first quarter. Of his eight catches, for 121 yards, Brown's longest was a 28-yarder across the middle to the Steelers' 40 just after the first half's two-minute warning, with the Pats leading 7-3. As Brady (12 of 18, 115 yards) released the ball, he was hit low by Pittsburgh strong safety Lee Flowers. Brady fell awkwardly and hobbled off the field with a sprained left ankle.

Out ran Bledsoe. With his body language and his performance he seemed to tell Brady, "Thanks, kid, I'll take it from here." Gone, in an instant, was the safe, screen-happy offense tailored to Brady; now there was an ever-present downfield threat. Bledsoe has thrown for nearly 30,000 yards, and few of them were as gratifying as his initial 15-yard hookup with Patten. He liked the next play even more. The usually immobile Bledsoe scrambled to his right and into the path of cornerback Chad Scott, who body-slammed him to the grass near the New England bench. Bledsoe bounced to his feet screaming, "Yeah! Let's go!" as his teammates roared. "We all felt it," said Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. "I swear to you, on that play near the sideline he wanted that DB to hit him." Bledsoe zinged another pass to Patten for 10 yards, then found the receiver in the right corner of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown and a 14-3 lead.

Yet when he needed to be, Bledsoe was cooler than a monk on Xanax. After the Patriots had taken a 21-3 lead on a 60-yard return of a blocked field goal--Brown picked up the ball and was slowed at the Steelers' 49, where he lateraled to Antwan Harris to complete the score--they faced a crisis. Stewart briefly reverted to his impressive regular-season form, mustering consecutive touchdown drives to cut New England's lead to 21-17 late in the third quarter. The home crowd was ultraloud, but Bledsoe turned down the volume with crisp completions to wideouts Charles Johnson and Brown, and the drive culminated with Adam Vinatieri nailing a 44-yard field goal. Then, with six minutes remaining, Bledsoe improvised a sideline lob to Brown for an 18-yard gain on third-and-11.

Two Patriots interceptions later it was time for Bledsoe to take a knee and kill the clock. Overcome by emotion, he wept. Mac Bledsoe was crying too as he embraced his son on the field. "Dad," Drew said, "I guess you're pretty glad you decided to come out for this one, huh?"

Later Drew had an emotional reunion with Pam Rehbein, his former coach's widow, whom Kraft had selected as the team's honorary captain. "I felt like Dick was watching over us today, like he has been all year," Bledsoe told her.

As the Patriots' team buses neared the airport, Bledsoe took out his cell phone and called his off-season home in Montana. His wife, Maura, answered on the first ring, then handed the phone to four-year-old Stuart, the eldest of their three sons. "Daddy, Daddy!" Stuart exclaimed. "You're a champion."

With a lump in his throat and a fire in his belly, Bledsoe told his boy, "Not yet, son. Not yet."