ON THE SPOT THE PATRIOTS' CHANCES OF BEATING THE PACKERS--AND HALTING THE AFC'S 12-GAME LOSING STREAK--DEPEND LARGELY ON WHETHER DREW BLEDSOE IS UP TO THE CHALLENGE

January 27, 1997

It has evolved into a little eve-of-the-game ritual, and they
will observe it again this Saturday night. "Good luck," Mac
Bledsoe will say to his son, to whom he will not speak until
after the game. "Throw the ball to our guys."

Should New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe fail to
heed his old man's advice, Super Bowl XXXI will be over before
the hundred Harley Davidsons come roaring across the Superdome
carpet, as they are scheduled to during ZZ Top's halftime
medley. Indeed, if the Patriots are to avoid becoming the 13th
consecutive AFC champion to get kicked in the tush by their NFC
counterpart, Bledsoe will have to do more than avoid
interceptions this Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. He must
also:

Avoid Barbara. Ever since high school, Bledsoe has steered clear
of his mother, Barbara, on game days. "She's the one person I
can't be around before games," he says. "She's so nervous it
starts to make me nervous."

Barbara and Mac's older of two sons, who will turn 25 on
Valentine's Day, will be the third-youngest quarterback ever to
start a Super Bowl, behind the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino (Super
Bowl XIX) and David Woodley (XVII). He is trying to become the
youngest quarterback to win it and, in so doing, replace a guy
named Namath (III) and another named Montana (XVI), who share
the honor at 25 years, 227 days. He already is the youngest
player in NFL history to throw for 14,000 yards, and he will go
from New Orleans to Honolulu to play in his second Pro Bowl in
four seasons.

Still, plenty of people aren't sold on Bledsoe. In the face of a
stiff rush, the critics say, his mechanics break down. ("Whose
don't?" rejoins one Patriots coach. "You're getting knocked on
your behind. It tends to affect your mechanics, yes.") His
well-meaning attempts to kick-start the offense occasionally
result in forced throws and interceptions. Those critics also
are still awaiting his breakout game.

If that occurs this Sunday, if Fox is not to suffer mass
defections of viewers to This Old House, Bledsoe will need to
demonstrate an ability to come through in the clutch. In what
were arguably New England's four biggest games--regular-season
dates with the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys (two losses),
and playoff games with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville
Jaguars (two victories)--he threw one touchdown pass and seven
interceptions. "As opportunistic as Green Bay is, I can't make
bad throws against them," Bledsoe says. "If I do, I'd better
hope they end up on the ground."

How will he keep his own two feet on the ground? He must:

Try Not to Be Overwhelmed. By the time he departed for New
Orleans, Bledsoe had adopted an Alfred E. Newman (What, me
worry?) attitude toward his first Super Bowl. "Before I got to
the NFL," he said, "I had this conception of what it was going
to be like. Then I got here, and it was the same game I'd been
playing forever. Now, all of a sudden, we're in the Super Bowl.
Yes, there are more people in the dressing room and more demands
on my time. And, yes, it'll be on a huge stage, with however
many billion people watching. [Actually, more like a mere 800
million.] But in a lot of ways, it feels like just another game."

Trust us, it isn't. Raising his voice in agreement is the best
quarterback ever to lose four of these games. "The Super Bowl is
something you can't imagine until you experience it," says Jim
Kelly of the Buffalo Bills. "You know you can't get too caught
up in it, but when it's your first time, you can't help it."

You tell yourself it's just another game, and the next thing you
know, the starting lineups are being announced amid
"pyrotechnics and inflatables" (as one press release last week
breathlessly promised there would be), Luther Vandross is
belting out the national anthem and it's not the same game you
played at Pioneer Junior High in Walla Walla, Wash.

One chink in the armor of the Packers, favored by two touchdowns
at week's end: Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre often
experiences early-game butterflies. "Maybe that's a weakness we
can take advantage of," says Bledsoe. Indeed, the Pats must:

Jump on 'Em Early. The obvious strategy: Run rocket-fueled
wideout Terry Glenn at Craig Newsome, a physical cornerback with
ordinary speed. "We're going to have to hit some big plays
against them," says Bledsoe. Even as he says that, he knows he
must pick his spots. "I need to take the throws downfield when
they're there. If they're not, I'll drop the ball off to
[running backs] Curtis Martin or Keith Byars." In short, Bledsoe
must play the game on a knife's edge.

If and when he leads the Patriots into the red zone, Bledsoe
can't afford to come away empty. New England will be doomed if
it even comes close to reprising its impotent performance of
Sept. 8, a 17-10 loss at Buffalo in which the Patriots made four
trips inside the Bills' 20 and came away with three points.

Bledsoe will find it easier to get in the red zone if he can
first:

Get in the Zone. Bledsoe was last there on Dec. 21. With a
playoff bye on the line and his team trailing the New York
Giants 22-3, he completed 12 of 20 fourth-quarter passes for 155
yards and two touchdowns as he rallied New England to a 23-22
victory.

The zone, however, is a place Bledsoe has yet to visit this
postseason. If he is to enter it against the Packers, it would
be helpful if someone would please:

Work Ben Coates Back into the Offense. Coates, a Pro Bowl tight
end, has 146 receptions over the last two seasons, but only four
in New England's two postseason games. Against the Carolina
Panthers in the NFC Championship Game, Green Bay strong safety
LeRoy Butler limited Pro Bowl tight end Wesley Walls to three
catches for 33 yards. However, Packers defensive coordinator
Fritz Shurmur has expressed grave concern over Glenn and fellow
wideout Shawn Jefferson. If, as Shurmur indicated last week, his
first priority is taking away the long ball, Butler will stay
deep to provide double coverage, and Coates should come open
over the middle.

Green Bay will shift between a 4-3 and a 3-4, and that will be
just the start of the torments Shurmur is sure to concoct for
Bledsoe. Such tactics have worked against the Patriots before.
In a 12-6 win over New England on Dec. 15, the Cowboys tossed a
gumbo of blitzes at Bledsoe, who by the end of the game was
hearing footsteps that weren't always there. The Cowboys forced
him into three interceptions and his worst game of the season.
Former San Francisco 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott, owner of
four Super Bowl rings, suggests "half-rolling the
pocket"--moving it right or left. Also, New England confounded
the blitz-happy Steelers by making big plays on first down, when
Pittsburgh's defense was at its most vanilla. "If they can start
out the way they did against us," says Steelers strong safety
Carnell Lake, "it will force Green Bay to step back and reassess."

If Bledsoe handles what Shurmur throws at him, and New England's
underrated, hard-hat defense can put a few speed bumps in front
of Favre, the Patriots might just be able to:

Hang Around. "If we have a chance to win this game," Bledsoe
says, "it probably won't come in the first three quarters. We
need to stay with them and come up with a big play in the fourth
quarter."

Even as Bledsoe acknowledges that he is the one who will have to
make that play, he disagrees with the notion that for New
England to win, he must put together the best game of his
career. Good thinking, says Kelly. "Drew can't get caught up in
everybody saying he has to be the Man," he says. "He shouldn't
try to do it all himself. Everybody's got to take care of his
own business."

As usual, it doesn't look good for the AFC. On paper this game
isn't close. Green Bay led the league in scoring defense and
total defense this season. If Bledsoe doesn't play well, he will
come in for more of the criticism he has absorbed for two
seasons. He's cool with that. "Win or lose," he says, "when I
come home, my dogs will jump all over me."

If the Packers jump all over the Patriots, that's cool, too. All
those Harleys on the field--that should be entertaining.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Drew Bledsoe in game] COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON The Cowboys knocked out Kelly in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXVII, but only after intercepting him twice. [Jim Kelly in game]

THE DIRTY DOZEN

If you're searching for reasons behind the AFC's string of 12
losses in the Super Bowl, here's one: The combined rating for
the AFC quarterbacks in those games was a woeful 54.9. Here are
their Super Bowl stats.

Super Quarterback, Team Att. Comp. Comp.% Yds TDs
Bowl
XIX DAN MARINO, Dolphins 50 29 58.0 318 1
XX TONY EASON, Patriots 6 0 0.0 0 0
STEVE GROGAN 30 17 56.7 177 1
XXI JOHN ELWAY, Broncos 37 22 59.5 304 1
GARY KUBIAK 4 4 100.0 48 0
XXII ELWAY, Broncos 38 14 36.8 257 1
XXIII BOOMER ESIASON, Bengals 25 11 44.0 144 0
XXIV ELWAY, Broncos 26 10 38.5 108 0
KUBIAK 3 1 33.3 28 0
XXV JIM KELLY, Bills 30 18 60.0 212 0
XXVI KELLY, Bills 58 28 48.3 275 2
FRANK REICH 1 1 100.0 11 0
XXVII KELLY, Bills 7 4 57.1 82 0
REICH 31 18 58.1 194 1
XXVIII KELLY, Bills 50 31 62.0 260 0
XXIX STAN HUMPHRIES, Chargers 49 24 49.0 275 1
GALE GILBERT 6 3 50.0 30 0
XXX NEIL O'DONNELL, Steelers 49 28 57.1 239 1

12-game averages 42 22 52.6 247 1
Bledsoe's 1996 averages 39 23 59.9 255 2

[Super [Quarterback, Team] Int. Sacks Loss Rating
Bowl]
[XIX] [DAN MARINO, Dolphins] 2 4 29 66.9
[XX] [TONY EASON, Patriots] 0 3 28 39.6
[STEVE GROGAN] 2 4 33 57.2
[XXI] [JOHN ELWAY, Broncos] 1 3 26 83.6
[GARY KUBIAK] 0 1 6 116.7
[XXII] [ELWAY, Broncos] 3 5 50 36.8
[XXIII] [BOOMER ESIASON, Bengals] 1 5 21 46.1
[XXIV] [ELWAY, Broncos] 2 4 30 19.4
[KUBIAK] 0 2 3 68.8
[XXV] [JIM KELLY, Bills] 0 1 7 81.5
[XXVI] [KELLY, Bills] 4 5 46 44.8
[FRANK REICH ] 0 0 0 112.5
[XXVII] [KELLY, Bills] 2 2 10 58.9
[REICH] 2 2 12 60.4
[XXVIII] [KELLY, Bills] 1 3 33 67.1
[XXIX] [STAN HUMPHRIES, Chargers] 2 2 18 56.1
[GALE GILBERT] 1 0 0 25.0
[XXX] [NEIL O'DONNELL, Steelers] 3 4 32 51.3

12-game averages 2 4 32 54.9
Bledsoe's 1996 averages 1 2 12 83.7

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
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