HE STARED up at the Heinz Field scoreboard, saw the familiar numbers and didn't even try to suppress a smile. Just as 90210 will always resonate with Tori Spelling, and Tommy Tutone will forever hold 867-5309 dear, Tommy Brady has a special place in his heart for 1:21. That was the amount of time remaining when the New England Patriots quarterback morphed into the NFL's unquestioned king of cool, ambling onto the Superdome turf in February 2002 to launch the smooth drive that set up the winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI. On Sunday the 1:21 was there again, in bright lights on a warm Pittsburgh night, after the hometown Steelers had tied the Patriots at 20 in a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game. Brady saw the familiar numbers and anticipated a similar outcome. ¬∂ "I will never forget 1:21," Brady said later. "When I saw it up there, I said, 'O.K., that's cool.' If you're telling me I've got the ball with over a minute left at Pittsburgh, with a chance to win the game--Hey, sign me up." ¬∂ As he watched teammate Ellis Hobbs return the Pittsburgh kickoff to the New England 38, Brady blocked out some less pleasing numbers that might have unraveled another quarterback: two rookies manning the left side of his offensive line; three Pats turnovers, two of them inside the Pittsburgh 10-yard line; and 64,868 fans, roaring their terrible roars and waving their Terrible Towels. He also did not dwell on the losses of strong safety Rodney Harrison, the New England defense's inspirational leader who blew out his left knee in the first quarter, and left tackle Matt Light, a starter since 2001, who suffered a leg injury in the second quarter.
On the first play Brady calmly took the snap, went through his progressions and, an instant before getting smacked by the Steelers pass rush, flicked the ball to his fourth read, backup halfback Kevin Faulk, who carried it to the Pittsburgh 45. After two more Brady passes advanced the ball 20 yards, Adam Vinatieri hit the 43-yard game-winning field goal, with :01 left.
Typical Brady. Typical Vinatieri. Typical of the Patriots, the team that stress forgot. "We play tough," said running back Corey Dillon, who carried 22 times for 61 yards and two touchdowns in the 23-20 victory. "When our backs are against the wall, we come out swinging and play our best."
It helps, of course, when the man handling the rock is the NFL's best player. At 28, with three NFL championship rings and a pair of Super Bowl MVP trophies, Brady is only now being recognized by rivals as the unquestioned master of his craft. The victory on Sunday was the 18th that came on a winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in Brady's five years as a starter. "That's why he's the best," Pittsburgh wideout Hines Ward said as he walked off the field. Four days earlier, Steelers second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had been asked to name the NFL's top player at his position. "People say [Peyton] Manning," he replied. "[But] Tom Brady is, by far, the best quarterback in the NFL." Later Roethlisberger, who had a 15-0 regular-season record as a starter going into Sunday's game, likened Brady to Superman, adding, "It's like he's got some special powers."
Even fantasy players had to give it up for the New England quarterback, who completed 31 of 41 passes for 372 yards on Sunday. They might not have seen this coming after his choppy performance in a 27-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers the previous week, a game full of errant throws, dropped balls, careless penalties and blown assignments by the Patriots. In a two-word e-mail to his actress girlfriend, Bridget Moynahan, who was on location in South Africa, Brady gave his postgame assessment: "That sucked."
Losing a second straight game, which New England hadn't done since 2002, might have provoked a description from Brady that would have set off the cyber censors. Yet a 1-2 start, in the midst of a brutal first-half schedule (next five games: San Diego, at Atlanta, at Denver, Buffalo, Indianapolis), loomed as a possibility. Last Halloween the Pats were riding a league-record 18-game regular-season winning streak when they went to Heinz Field, and they got manhandled in a 34-20 defeat. Three months later New England returned to Pittsburgh for the AFC title game and emerged with a 41-27 triumph, then went on to win a second consecutive NFL championship.
Since then, however, coach Bill Belichick has lost both of his top assistants to head coaching jobs (defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to the Cleveland Browns, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Notre Dame), plus star linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who had a mild stroke in February and is sitting out the 2005 season. As Brady was quick to point out last Saturday night upon arriving in Pittsburgh, "We're a different team than we were last year, and it takes a lot of practice and hard work to become a good team. This game is a huge test for us. How do you deal with a tough loss? You know Pittsburgh's going to be there at the end of the season. You just hope you are."
Then Brady, in an instant, turned from compliant to defiant: "If people think we're throwing in the towel because we lost one game, they're mistaken. We're much more mentally tough than that."
The Patriots made that clear on their first possession, driving 46 yards in seven plays to take a 7-0 lead on Dillon's four-yard touchdown run. But Roethlisberger (12 for 28, 216 yards, two TDs) answered immediately, hitting Ward in stride on a slant between cornerback Asante Samuel and free safety Eugene Wilson. The All-Pro wideout raced into the clear for a careerlong 85-yard score.
On the second play of the Steelers' next drive, which would end on Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead, wideout Cedrick Wilson was driven backward while attempting to block for halfback Willie Parker on a running play. Wilson inadvertently crashed into Harrison at an awkward angle, and New England's 32-year-old safety slumped to the turf, clutching his left knee in agony. Other than Brady's going down, Harrison's injury was the most disquieting sight the Patriots could have imagined. Five minutes into the second quarter they were grimacing again after Light got hurt while blocking on a running play. When Steelers trainer John Norwig ran onto the field to check on the fallen opponent, a common practice in the NFL, Belichick--who is notoriously secretive about his players' injuries--chased Norwig off. Pressed into action to protect Brady's blind side was rookie Nick Kaczur, a third-round draft pick out of Toledo who had seen spot duty in the first two games.
When Roethlisberger landed awkwardly on his left side after being taken down by Patriots linebacker Don Davis with 2:37 left in the first half, and walked off holding his left arm, it seemed the clear winner of this injury-marred game would be another AFC contender, the Indianapolis Colts. But Roethlisberger didn't miss a snap, and Pittsburgh held a 13-10 lead entering the fourth quarter thanks to big plays by the defense: Outside linebacker Clark Haggans twice pried the ball away from Faulk, and defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen deflected a pass near the line of scrimmage, resulting in Chris Hope's interception at the Steelers' four-yard line with 31 seconds left before halftime.
In the end, however, Big Ben could only watch as Brady laid down another eerie Joe Montana cover. When the fourth quarter began, as Brady's backup, 42-year-old Doug Flutie, would say later, "it was like somebody threw a switch." Brady took over at the New England 14, dropped back to pass and dropped Flutie's jaw with a sweet, 14-yard sideline throw to wideout David Givens. "[Brady] got rushed and had to throw it early and guessed a little bit, and he put it in an incredible spot just shy of the sideline," Flutie said afterward, marveling. "At that point it was time to sit back and enjoy the ride."
Despite enduring what he described as a "blitzathon" by the Pittsburgh defense, Brady completed all 12 of his fourth-quarter passes, for 167 yards, nimbly stepping up in the pocket and gliding away from pressure. Dillon ran for his second touchdown, and Vinatieri added a 35-yard field goal to put the Pats in front 20-13. Give Roethlisberger credit for hanging tough. His fade to wideout Quincy Morgan on fourth-and-11 with 1:25 to go drew a pass interference call on former Steelers cornerback Chad Scott, setting up a four-yard completion to Ward in the back of the end zone. All of Steeltown was thinking overtime.
Well, not everyone. Standing on the Pittsburgh sideline, injured running back Jerome Bettis was thinking, We know what's happening. Brady's got too much time. Eighty-one seconds ... 1:21. And yes, Superman was feeling super. Brady's flashback performance was as devoid of flash as the original three years earlier. Vinatieri's kick was as true as the 48-yarder that vanquished the St. Louis Rams on the last play of Super Bowl XXXVI and the 41-yarder that beat the Panthers with four seconds left in XXXVIII. Game over. No red-white-and-blue confetti this time, just heartfelt hugs between respectful combatants on 2-1 teams who may well meet again in January.
If they do, the number to watch will be 12, as in the one on the back of the jersey worn by New England's man of steel.
"Oh, they hate us here!" Brady exclaimed as he entered the visitors' locker room after Sunday's game. "Wouldn't you hate us? We love it."
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Brady (pitching to Dillon, top) kept calm even when the clock ticked down.
Dillon and the Pats know the Steelers could get another shot at them come January.