HE WAS flat on his back, shaken up and shivering on a frigid winter's evening, and he began to fear he was losing the battle. Tom Brady, the New England Patriots' clutch quarterback, was laid out in room 304 of the Four Points Sheraton in Pittsburgh last Saturday night, his throat sore and his temperature at 103°. He had an IV in his left arm and a past disappointment on his mind. An AFC Championship Game showdown with the Steelers awaited the Pats in 24 hours, and as miserable as he felt, Brady intended to win it. ¬∂ I'm definitely playing, he thought. There's no way I'm missing this. ¬∂ Three years earlier, after having burst onto the scene as a fantastic fill-in for the injured Drew Bledsoe, Brady had suffered an ankle sprain in the second quarter of the AFC title game and had to sit out the rest of New England's upset of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. This time, even though he would have to spend much of game day underneath the sheets, Brady was determined to rise and deliver. And he did, in typical fashion, shredding the league's top-ranked defense and guiding the defending champion Pats to a 41--27 victory at Heinz. Their next stop is Jacksonville for a Feb. 6 meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
"What can you say about him? He's amazing," New England linebacker Ted Johnson said of Brady after the game. "He's a winner with such poise and calmness, he almost makes it look effortless."
Brady completed 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns, but as usual, numbers don't begin to do justice to his performance, which took place in 11° cold with a windchill of --1. If his grace, poise and smoothness must be quantified, then consider this combination: age (27), career postseason record (8--0) and typical tally of turnovers in big games (zero, as in Sunday's triumph). Super Bowl fever--catch it. Should he shine against the Eagles, Brady will have a chance to win a third Super Bowl MVP award, which would tie the record held by his idol, Joe Montana.
Brady, who had won 30 of his last 32 games going into Sunday, has suffered few setbacks on his journey to greatness, but the Steelers loomed as a serious obstacle. Pittsburgh, on its way to a league-best 15--1 regular-season record, had ended New England's NFL-record 21-game winning streak on Oct. 31 with a 34--20 blowout at Heinz during which the Steelers bullied the Pats on both sides of the ball. In addition to hounding Brady into a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, Pittsburgh ran the ball at will against New England's normally sturdy front seven, rolling up 221 yards.
Heading into the hotly anticipated rematch, the Steelers were confident that they could repeat the beating. "We're going to pound the s--- out of them," running back Jerome (the Bus) Bettis predicted last Friday. "Everyone is wondering how we're going to stop them, but how are they going to stop us?" Though impressed by the Patriots' stuffing of the league's top-ranked passing offense in a 20--3 divisional-round victory over the Indianapolis Colts the previous Sunday, Joey Porter, Pittsburgh's Pro Bowl outside linebacker, scoffed, "They're not made for overpowering a team like us. That's the difference between us and Indy--we won't be scared."
The Steelers flinched first on Sunday. Pats free safety Eugene Wilson collected the first of two interceptions less than a minute and a half into the game. The errant throw by rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who would go 14 of 24 for 226 yards with three interceptions) gave New England the ball at the Pittsburgh 48 and set up Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal.
Trailing 3--0, Big Ben--an astounding 14--0 as a starter coming into the game--quickly steered the Steelers back into Patriots territory. Facing fourth-and-one from the 39, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher set up the mano a mano clash both teams had craved. "That's so Cowher to go for it," New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi said admiringly. "It gave us a chance to do what we do best and go against what they do best." Not surprisingly, Patriots strong safety Rodney (Don't Call Me Dangerfield) Harrison viewed Cowher's aggressive decision "as a sign of disrespect." Harrison, who searches for slights the way CSI's Gil Grissom hunts down criminals, said, "That was a gutsy call. It was saying, 'We're more physical than you are. We're tougher than you are. And we will get that one yard because we want to.'"
From New England's perspective it was time for an unscheduled Bus stop. Running behind the strength of the Steelers' line, left guard Alan Faneca and center Jeff Hartings, Bettis threw his 258 pounds toward the line of scrimmage. Defensive linemen Keith Traylor and Jarvis Green held firm, and inside linebacker Ted Johnson rushed up to stymie Bettis's second effort. Rosevelt Colvin swooped in from the side to strip the football, and fellow outside linebacker Mike Vrabel recovered it--though the Bus wouldn't have picked up the first down even if he hadn't fumbled.
"That was a chance to set a tone, and we had to stop them," Johnson said. "It made a hell of a statement."
On the next play Brady made an even more resounding statement, connecting with wideout Deion Branch on a 60-yard touchdown pass that was as pretty as New England's autumn foliage. The call was Ride 130 Cross Stalk, and Brady sold the pass perfectly with a deft fake to running back Corey Dillon. The quarterback first looked to wideout David Givens, who ran a crossing pattern that attracted the attention of Pittsburgh's splendid second-year safety, Troy Polamalu. "When I saw the safety bite, I knew I had Deion deep," Brady said after the game. "He ran a great route, and when I let it go I figured, We've got a damn good shot. But when you throw the ball 55 or 60 yards, you never really know until it lands." The ball dropped gently into the outstretched hands of Branch, who was a step ahead of cornerback Deshea Townsend when he caught it at the 15.
After the Steelers cut the lead to 10--3 on Jeff Reed's 43-yard field goal, Brady went up top for Branch again, this time delivering an equally picturesque 45-yard spiral that Branch held on to even after a crushing hit from Polamalu. Two plays later Brady, after calling an audible, threw a quick hitch to Givens, who raced down the right sideline for a nine-yard touchdown with 7:12 left in the second quarter.
Pittsburgh drove to the 19 before Roethlisberger made the horrible mistake that Brady never seems to, serving up a pass in the flat for tight end Jerame Tuman that Harrison swiped. Eighty-seven yards later it was 24--3, and though the Steelers would rally to keep things interesting until the middle of the fourth quarter, Brady and the Patriots had left them out in the cold.
If this wasn't quite the equivalent of the flu-stricken Montana's famous Chicken Soup Game, a frantic comeback effort that gave Notre Dame a win over Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, it was close enough. While holed up at the Four Points, Brady hit up room service for a couple of bowls of wedding soup--and please, tabloid fans, don't read anything into that, the quarterback's thriving relationship with actress Bridget Moynahan notwithstanding.
Numerous other Patriots were also hit by a flu bug during the week. Many more were cranky after having to fly to Pittsburgh on Friday, a day earlier than scheduled, to avoid the snowstorm that hit the Northeast on Saturday. As always, coach Bill Belichick, the Bill Walsh to Brady's Montana, persuaded his players to put aside those potential distractions in the name of a higher calling: becoming what must be one of the most low-key dynasties in recent history.
"Other teams might showboat, but we're coached to expect to make great plays, so when we do we don't feel a need to jump up and down like it's a big deal," 11th-year outside linebacker Willie McGinest said last Thursday as he dined at a steak house in Boston's Back Bay. "It's like the difference between guys who get a little bit of cash and wear flashy clothes and a bunch of bling and cruise around in fly rides, and the really rich dudes who chill in jeans and sneakers. You can't even tell they have money, but they're the biggest players of all."
Late on Sunday, as he prepared to board the Patriots' bus outside Heinz, the NFL's best big-game player winced as the subzero wind whipped through his pinstriped suit. "That was sweet," Brady said hoarsely about the victory, summoning a smile. He was feeling shivers once more, but this time so were a lot of people who'd watched him play.
"That was a chance to SET A TONE," Johnson said of stopping Bettis on fourth down. "It made a hell of a statement."