Unbelievable. Incredible. Amazing. What more can you say about the Patriots’ effort on Sunday? The NFL’s greatest story just kept on getting better, as the New England Patriots marched on to the Super Bowl in New Orleans for the third time in franchise history. In a battle of two teams no one thought would be in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots made sure their Cinderella season will end with a shot at the title.
It was only fitting that in a battle of two unlikely contenders, the game was won by the most unlikely hero of them all: Drew Bledsoe. When Bledsoe went down with injury in Week 2, Tom Brady stepped in and gave the team life. Bledsoe was replaced in the starting lineup, even after he returned from injury. The gutsy Brady led the Patriots to an 11-3 record as a starter, including a season-ending six game winning streak. Bledsoe figured to have finished his playing days in New England. Ever the leader, however, Bledsoe remained a class act in the locker room and on the sideline, always supporting the team. He even remained a captain, leading the Patriots out for the overtime coin toss in their dramatic win over the Raiders last week.
Then came today’s game. All of a sudden the Patriots needed Bledsoe for more than just leadership. Hanging on to a 7-3 lead over the heavily favored Steelers, Brady went down with a leg injury. Week 2 of the Patriot’s playoff run was looking awfully reminiscent of Week 2 of the regular season. Only this time, Bledsoe got a chance to shine. Showing no signs of hesitation, Bledsoe stepped in and led the Patriots downfield, tossing a touchdown pass to David Patten on just his fourth play back. Though the Steelers mounted a late charge, Bledsoe held on, leading the Patriots into the Super Bowl. When this became apparent, Bledsoe did something you don’t see a lot of athletes do. He cried.
Drew Bledsoe, the man forgotten by his team, a player cast aside in the quest for championship glory, cried tears of joy. They were also tears of realization, the realization that he had done it again. Drew Bledsoe led his team to the promised land. No words can describe how touching it was to see the beleaguered quarterback receive his just reward.
On the NFC side of things there were fewer tears, but just as much drama. Playing in front of a sold out home crowd, the St. Louis Rams earned a trip to their second Super Bowl in three years. Unlike most of their games this season, beating the Eagles was no cake-walk for the champs of ’99, as they held off a late Eagles’ rally to win 29-24.
Focused on stopping NFL MVP Kurt Warner, the Eagles did just that, holding the charismatic QB to just 212 yards and one touchdown.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, they couldn’t stop the Rams’ other MVP, Marshall Faulk, as the 2000 award winner rushed for 159 yards and two scores. In doing so, Faulk chewed up much of the clock, giving the Eagles little to work with in order to rally.
At the end of the first half, it looked as though the Rams would be the ones needing to rally, as the Eagles took a 17-13 edge into the locker room. But after the break the Eagles’ offense went flat, and the Rams raced out to a 29-17 advantage with six minutes remaining.
Donovan McNabb was able to lead the Eagles in for one score, bringing them within five. After forcing the Rams to punt, however, McNabb could not find the endzone again, as an interception by Aeneas Williams sealed the victory for the Rams.
So the stage is set for New Orleans: New England vs. St. Louis. The team that only plays Super Bowls in the Big Easy (The Patriots’ previous two appearances, ’85 and ’97, both took place in New Orleans) takes on the team whose best offensive and defensive players (Marshall Faulk and Aeneas Williams) call it home.
Who will win? I can’t say, but I will preview the game for you on Friday.