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 Beliehick 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."