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All in their hands

AFC: Kordell Stewart and Tom Brady started the season as questions marks, but they came up with all the answers.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002


photo
[AP photo]
Kordell Stewart blossoms at quarterback after years of criticism.
[AP photo]
Tom Brady, a virtual unknown, takes over the starting role in the third game.
When the season began, Kordell Stewart was a work in progress, Tom Brady a virtual unknown.

There likely weren't too many believers among Patriots fans when Brady stepped onto the field for his first NFL start, and probably not too many more when they left Foxboro Stadium after the team's first victory in three games.

Yes, New England had rolled over the Colts 44-13, but it was built on three short scoring runs, three field goals and a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Brady, starting for the first time in place of an injured Drew Bledsoe, was more than anything a caretaker quarterback. The 199th pick in the 2000 draft had yet to show what he could do.

Likewise, the mood of Pittsburgh's faithful who tuned in to watch Stewart's opening-game performance surely turned as gloomy as the rainy, windy weather in Jacksonville when the Steelers trudged out of Alltel Stadium on the short end of a 21-3 score. The quarterback had not returned to his 1997 form when, in his first year as a starter, Stewart had become "Slash" in recognition of the 426 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns that accompanied his 3,020 yards and 21 touchdowns passing.

A collective 24 victories and two division titles later, they lead their teams into today's AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. It is the Steelers' first since losing to the 1997 Super Bowl-champion Broncos, the Patriots' first since beating Jacksonville in 1996, their last stop before a Super Bowl loss to Green Bay.

Brady, a redshirt freshman at Michigan that season, occupies less than a page in the Patriots' 2001 media guide (Bledsoe has 26). Not only is Brady now known, he is an icon in New England.

"He never acted like a young quarterback" when he replaced Bledsoe, Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown said. "His attitude was he was going to step in and play well for us. He's confident, he believes in himself. We didn't have to sort of babysit him into the role and coach him along.

"What impresses me most is that when something does go wrong, he doesn't respond negatively, doesn't hang his head. He keeps fighting back every time something bad happens to him. ... He never got down on himself (in the huddle). He never thought he couldn't do it. He just came back and made some plays for us. He took us on some long drives to get back into the (Raiders) game, to tie it up and even to win it. That's the kind of player he is -- a field general," Brown said.

Stewart, a second-round draft pick in 1995, set numerous team passing records at Colorado and gained national attention with his 64-yard pass to Michael Westbrook in the end zone on the last play to beat Michigan 27-26.

His first playoff game against New England, Jan. 12, 1997, in an AFC divisional playoff, was, to put it kindly, dreadful. He and starting quarterback Mike Tomczak were shuffled in and out, and all 10 of Stewart's passes were incomplete in the 28-3 loss.

"I didn't have a clue," Stewart said. "I was just out there throwing the ball."

A year later Stewart was an adequate 14-for-31 passing for 134 yards against New England in a divisional playoff, and his 40-yard run along the left sideline produced the touchdown in a 7-6 Pittsburgh victory.

After struggling the past three seasons, Stewart is more disciplined and confident, once again the two-way threat that earned his nickname.

"Kordell's been looking like the Kordell of old," Brown said. "He's been making great plays, great throws, not making mistakes. He probably is the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he sees a more mature Kordell, more comfortable with Pittsburgh's passing game because "the Steelers have done a good job of putting him in situations that really highlight or accent his athletic ability. ...

"His ability to keep you off-balance because of the scrambling creates a lot of open spaces for (his receivers) in the passing game because you just have to account for Kordell running the ball whether it's a designed run or whether he improvises." And Stewart faces a defense ranked 24th in the league, 14th in the AFC. The Steelers, conversely, have the NFL's No. 1 defense.

They relish the opportunity to face Brady, who has never played a team with this much stopping power. The closest: Miami, fifth in the league. And the Dolphins (who allowed nearly 30 yards more per game and had 18 fewer sacks than the Steelers) pretty much stuffed Brady, allowing him to pass for 194 yards and one touchdown in two games.

"He's been playing with a lot of confidence," Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter said. "He definitely has that moxie about him. He sits in the pocket like a veteran and doesn't get the happy feet right away. He'll take a hit instead of throwing up the bad ball.

"But he hasn't seen the kind of pressure that we bring. We're going to try and throw everything we've got at him, try to take away the run and put it all on Tom Brady's shoulders to go out there and beat us."

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