The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t need a miracle to beat the New England Patriots this time, just a Steel Curtain-like defense and a dash of Slash.
In a game of field position, the Steelers had the biggest edge of all - the home field, which they gained with an improbable win at New England three weeks ago after a miraculous interception.
The Steelers rode the momentum generated by their towel-twirling fans, the AFC’s best defense and sprinter-quick quarterback Kordell Stewart to eliminate the Patriots 7-6 Saturday in a defensive struggle more suited for the leather-helmet days of the 1930s than the high-tech 1990s.
“Maybe it was ugly, maybe it was boring to watch. It wasn’t our best game, but I don’t think we’ve played that yet,” linebacker Levon Kirkland said after the Steelers forced Drew Bledsoe into throwing two interceptions and fumbling twice. “And what better week to play it than next week?”
The Steelers will meet Denver or Kansas City in their third AFC championship game appearance in four years on Jan. 11. They will play in Pittsburgh if Denver wins today, or in Kansas City if the Chiefs win.
Pittsburgh beat Denver 35-24 Dec. 7 in Pittsburgh, but squandered a 10-0 lead in losing at Kansas City 13-10 on Nov. 3.
New England, the defending AFC champions, played the Steelers tougher in Pittsburgh than any AFC opponent all season, shutting them out after Stewart’s 40-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The Patriots kept it a one-point game with a fourth-quarter goal-line stand.
They also limited Bettis to 67 yards on 25 carries, his lowest output since a 63-yard effort in a season-opening 37-7 loss to Dallas, and outgained Pittsburgh 280-279.
“I’m in shock. I can’t believe we lost that game,” cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock said. “It was an unbelievable performance on the defensive side of the ball.”
But with star runner Curtis Martin out with a groin injury, tight end Ben Coates (thumb) limited to a few plays and receiver Terry Glenn (shoulder) out by the fourth quarter, Bledsoe almost had to win it by himself.
That might be asking too much of John Elway, much less a quarterback with only five postseason touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
“We knew coming in we had to throw it to win, and unfortunately we didn’t throw it well enough,” said Bledsoe, who was 23 of 44 for 264 yards.
“I have to question his (Bledsoe’s) toughness,” said Steelers defensive end Kevin Henry, who made that interception on Dec. 13. “We hit him a couple of times in the first quarter and took him out of his game. No quarterback likes to have pressure in his face, and he’s a quarterback you can really get to.”
The Patriots were so desperate for offense that rookie Sedrick Shaw, who hadn’t carried all season, was given the ball 10 times. He gained 22 yards.
Still, they had their chances to win - lots of them.
With reserves manning key positions everywhere he looked, Bledsoe got the ball back at his own 1 after Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi stacked up Stewart for no gain on a fourth-and-goal at the 1 with 3:24 remaining.
The Patriots needed about 75 yards for a legitimate field goal try.
Afterward, coach Bill Cowher so regretted not going for the field goal, he apologized to his team and to Steelers fans, saying, “You can call me a dummy.”
“He didn’t have to do that,” said defensive end Jason Gildon, who recovered both Bledsoe fumbles. “We stand behind him. He thought our defense was playing well at the time and they would still have to drive pretty far down the field.”
Bledsoe went 6 for 7 in marching the Patriots to the 42, but, under a heavy rush from rookie Mike Vrabel, fumbled as he tried to pass, and Gildon made his second recovery.
Pittsburgh’s offense started well, but finished poorly.
Rookie Chad Scott intercepted Bledsoe’s floating, overthrown pass intended for Glenn on the third play of the game, giving Pittsburgh the ball at its own 28.
Stewart, who would convert six times on third-and-long, twice hit Charles Johnson for 10-yard gains on third down. On a second-and-10, Stewart rolled out to his left and ran by four blitzing Patriots on a 40-yard TD run - the longest in Steelers playoff history.
Steelers 7, Patriots 6
New England 0 3 0 3 - 6
Pittsburgh 7 0 0 0 - 7
First quarter Pit-Stewart 40 run (N.Johnson kick), 9:49.
Second quarter NE-FG Vinatieri 31, 7:40.
Fourth quarter NE-FG Vinatieri 46, 12:16.
NE Pit First downs 15 16 Rushes-yards 19-36 37-145 Passing 244 134 Punt Returns 3-24 4-78 Kickoff Returns 2-36 3-44 Interceptions Ret. 1-0 2-48 Comp-Att-Int 23-44-2 14-31-1 Sacked-Yards Lost 2-20 2-0 Punts 7-42.0 9-32.7 Fumbles-Lost 2-2 0-0 Penalties-Yards 7-68 5-41 Time of Possession 24:23 35:37 Individual statistics RUSHING-New England, Shaw 10-22, Cullors 7-18, Bledsoe 2-(minus 4). Pittsburgh, Stewart 11-68, Bettis 25-67, McAfee 1-10.
PASSING-New England, Bledsoe 23-44-2-264. Pittsburgh, Stewart 14-31-1-134.
RECEIVING-New England, Jefferson 9-104, Glenn 5-96, Brisby 3-37, Byars 2-1, Shaw 1-13, Brown 1-6, Gash 1-6, Cullors 1-1, Purnell 0-0. Pittsburgh, Hawkins 4-28, Thigpen 3-54, C.Johnson 3-28, Lester 2-3, Blackwell 1-14, Bettis 1-7.
MISSED FIELD GOALS-None.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TODAY ON TV NFC: Tampa Bay at Green Bay, 9:30 a.m. (Fox). AFC: Denver at Kansas City, 1 p.m. (NBC).
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