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Bledsoe and Patriots pull off AFC title upset, end the Steelers’ season

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PITTSBURGH — Nobody in Pittsburgh expected the New England Patriots to win the AFC championship — most of all, it would seem, the Steelers themselves.

Now, as New England's magical mystery tour of a season unexpectedly heads to New Orleans for a Super Bowl matchup with St. Louis that nobody predicted, the Patriots will be America's underdog again.

Their response is much the same as it was before their 24-17 upset victory Sunday over Pittsburgh in the AFC title game — no matter the point spread or the public perception, no matter who their quarterback is, it makes no difference as long as they themselves believe.

"I think the only way we are going to get respect is not just making it to the Super Bowl, it's to win it," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "Hopefully, we'll have a party at the end of the year, and nobody else will be invited."

They've already ruined Pittsburgh's postseason party, one the Steelers may have — at least mentally — booked last week. The day after manhandling Baltimore 27-10 in the playoffs, the Steelers held a logistical meeting to review their Super Bowl plans.

The session was innocent enough — coach Bill Cowher called it so they wouldn't be distracted if they advanced — but Patriots coach Bill Belichick seized on it as a sign of Pittsburgh's overconfidence.

The Patriots picked up on the theme. More importantly, they picked up on the Steelers' seasonlong special teams problems and exploited them for two touchdowns: Troy Brown's 55-yard punt return and Antwan Harris' 49-yard blocked field goal return.

Those special teams breakdowns forced the Steelers to junk their going-nowhere running game and ask Kordell Stewart to win the game. He couldn't, but Drew Bledsoe — the $100 million backup quarterback — could after being the forgotten man on what is fast becoming an unforgettable team.

Bledsoe hadn't played since Sept. 23 until replacing the injured Tom Brady late in the second quarter. Brady, the star of the Patriots' improbable snow bowl comeback over Oakland the week before, injured his lower left leg while being upended by Lee Flowers.

Bledsoe's first pass was a 15-yarder to David Patten — so much for knocking the rust off — and, two plays later, he lofted a perfectly thrown floater in the corner of the end zone to Patten to put the Patriots up 14-3.

Later, Stewart drove the Steelers to two touchdowns in less than four minutes to cut it to 21-17 and seemingly seize the momentum. But Bledsoe, who beat Jacksonville in the AFC title game five years ago, responded to lead two fourth-quarter drives that resulted in an Adam Vinatieri field goal and ran precious time off the clock.

And while Pittsburgh didn't get big games from its stars, Brown seemed to be in the middle of every big play. Besides the punt return touchdown, he scooped up the blocked field goal before tossing it to Harris, and made eight catches for 121 yards — or 10 fewer yards than the Steelers' Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward combined.

Lucky? Fortunate? No, on this day, the Patriots simply were better.

"I don't know about miracles. I didn't see any genies or wizards out there, I just saw some passes that were completed and some players who were trying to get to the Super Bowl — and did," Pittsburgh tackle Wayne Gandy said.

They weren't Steelers, either.

Despite owning the AFC's best record (14-3 coming in), the NFL's top-ranked defense and rushing offense, the Steelers were beaten in the AFC title game for the third time in eight years — all under Bill Cowher, the first coach to lose three title games at home.

"It's sickening," said Pro Bowl running back Jerome Bettis, who returned from an eight-week layoff to gain only eight yards on nine carries and wasn't a factor. "It's a sickening feeling."

Stewart's disappointment contrasted to Bledsoe's delight in getting his team to the Super Bowl after not playing for four months. Brady likely will start in New Orleans, but Bledsoe promised there will be no quarterback controversy.

"I envisioned this scenario because that's what you have to prepare for," Bledsoe said. "But to have that happen, to be kneeling on the ball at the end of the game and going to the Super Bowl, it's just a little overwhelming."

Just as the odds are, but consider this — the Rams edged New England 24-17 when they played Nov. 18 in Foxboro.

"People can say what they want to say, talk about what we don't have, call us Cinderella and lucky and whatever else they want to call us, and I don't care," Brown said. "This game is over, we won — and we're going to the Super Bowl."