They were huge underdogs. They had to play on the road. Against the number one seed in the conference. With an offense led by a former sixth round draft pick starting only his 16th NFL game. One week after sneaking by the Oakland Raiders, the New England Patriots had to travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
The Patriots have appeared in two AFC title games before – 1985 and 1996 – and won them both. To make it 3-for-3, the team would have to knock off an opponent which had lost only three games all year and had one of the best offenses in the NFL and one of the best defenses. Early on, the 2001 AFC Championship Game was dominated by the latter.
New England and Pittsburgh both struggled to move the ball against the stout opposing defenses. Thus, the early parts of the game were dominated by short drives ending in punts. The Patriots’ opening series ended with a kick, the Steelers’ as well. Then the same again, then another New England punt followed by one by Pittsburgh. This final punt, however, was different than the others.
Usually, the Steelers tried to kick away from Troy Brown but this time he fielded the kick cleanly and started to head up field. Past one tackle attempt, then past another and another – until he was in the end zone and the Patriots ahead 6- and one successful kick later 7-0. This time, Pittsburgh was able to respond, though and drove 65 yards to a field goal.
After two straight scores it was back to straight punts; two by each team to be exact. At that point – late in the second quarter – the Patriots started to generate at least a little offensive rhythm but all seemed for naught when quarterback Tom Brady injured his ankle and had to leave the game. His replacement: his predecessor as the starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe.
As if he had never left, the former first overall pick started to sling the ball and opened his first game action since September with four straight completions. The fourth of them was a perfectly executed 11-yard endzone pass to David Patten, who caught it and helped his team to a 14-3 halftime lead. Coming out of the locker room again, the Patriots would expand it even further.
After New England could not capitalize on a lost Pittsburgh opening drive fumble, the home tried to get closer on its second possession of the third quarter. The Steelers attempted a 34-yard field goal to make it a 14-6 ballgame. This never happened, though, as defensive end Brandon Mitchell blocked the attempt. The loose ball was recovered by Troy Brown, who started a return before lateraling to Antwan Harris. Harris would finish the play by taking the football to the endzone and giving his team a 21-3 lead.
Down 18 points, Pittsburgh’s seventh-ranked scoring offense suddenly came to life and scored two straight touchdowns. After the second and with the score 21-17, the Patriots drove into Steelers territory to add a field goal and take a one-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter. With time running out, so did Pittsburgh’s luck. The Steelers’ two final attempts at driving to a tie ended with interceptions by quarterback Kordell Stewart. First, Tebucky Jones picked off Stewart, then Lawyer Milloy did the same to essentially seal the game – something that was factually done by a 19-yard Antowain Smith run two plays later.
Patriots 24, Steelers 17.
New England went on to play in Super Bowl XXXVI. The team – with Brady back as the starting quarterback – was able to pull off another upset by beating the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams. The 20-17 victory would earn the team its first of to date four Lombardi Trophies.