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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.