Which QB starts the Super Bowl?

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2002

Picking a starting quarterback is not supposed to be this hard.

Not when you're headed to the Super Bowl, and especially not when your team is on the hook for $900,000 to one guy and $103 million to the other.

But after New England put the finishing touches on Sunday's 24-17 upset of the Steelers, a full-blown quarterback controversy was staring Patriots coach Bill Belichick in the face -- for the second time this season, no less.

Tom Brady, the bargain-basement passer who stepped in when Pro Bowl veteran Drew Bledsoe was injured after the second game of the regular season, gave way to Bledsoe after rolling his ankle just before halftime.

For the first time since a vicious hit by the Jets' Mo Lewis four months ago sheared a blood vessel in his chest, Bledsoe stepped onto a field with something on the line. To no one's surprise, he was masterful.

''You don't give a guy $100 million if you don't think he can be a championship quarterback,'' Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers said. ''Nobody on our sideline was celebrating when Brady went out.''

For those who thought Belichick could have used King Solomon on the payroll as a consultant to choose between the two last time this came up, just wait until Super Bowl week.

One can still run with the ball, the other can't.

One has almost a decade of experience, the other the better part of a season.

One throws the deep ball better, the other throws a better-timed slant.

But both have proven themselves stone-cold winners.

''We'll take a look at Tom's situation and we'll make an evaluation there,'' Belichick said. ''We'll talk about it and make the decision later in the week.''

Brady was still waiting for his chance to wrap his hands around the AFC Championship trophy when someone asked him how the ankle felt.

''Feeling good, feeling good,'' he replied, ''and that's all coach wants us to say about it.''

But that will hardly be the last word.

Compared to all the manufactured controversies in Super Bowl weeks past, this one is a 14-carat conundrum.

''Obviously,'' said Bledsoe, ''that's the biggest game there is and everybody wants to play in it. It's going to be a tough situation.''

The best thing that can be said for Belichick is at least he's had some practice handling it.

And he's got this going for him, too: Both Brady, a sixth-round pick just two seasons removed from a quarterback controversy of his own at Michigan, and Bledsoe, whose 10-year, $103 million deal before this season cemented his status as a franchise quarterback, have been as cooperative as two men with hyper-competitive egos can be.

When Bledsoe was KO'd trying to get out of bounds in the Patriots' second game, Brady stepped into the No. 1 role and played with more seasoning than anybody had a right to expect. He was just starting to hit his stride when the doctors cleared Bledsoe to rejoin a club that was 5-5. Belichick took a chance by announcing he was sticking with the youngster.

''It wasn't Tom's fault they chose to go with him the rest of the year,'' New England safety Lawyer Milloy said. ''A lot of us definitely felt any competitor that loses his job due to injury, you have to feel his pain. But the way Drew handled the situation all year is the reason we were able to do the things we're doing.

''He wasn't a distraction,'' Milloy added, ''and I think you guys saw us rally behind him because he helped us out throughout his ordeal.''

Not that Bledsoe needed much help. He stepped in for Brady with 1:40 left in the second quarter, facing first-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 40.

Shaking off four months of rust, Bledsoe hooked up with David Patten for 15 yards on his first play, then tried to salvage something from a busted play on the second by taking off for the sideline. Before he could get out of bounds, Steelers defensive back Chad Scott rushed up and plowed into Bledsoe.

Remembering how Mo Lewis had laid Bledsoe out, his teammates held their breath for a heartbeat, fearing the worst. Instead, Bledsoe came bouncing up and out of the confusion on the sideline like a kid at a PeeWee league game.

''Hey, it's football,'' he recalled afterward. ''And sometimes in order for it to feel like football, you've got to get hit. It happens. Sometimes, it even helps.''

Either way, there's no arguing with the results. He finished off the drive with an 11-yarder to Patten in the end zone, the only touchdown the Pats' offense mustered all day. Bledsoe finished a respectable 10-for-21 for 102 yards, but his best throw was easily overlooked in all the postgame celebrating.

That would have been an 18-yard soft toss he made to Troy Brown on New England's next-to-last drive. Needing to take time off the clock, he faced a third-and-11 from his own 19.

Looking downfield, Bledsoe saw his first target covered, then shifted his gaze to the right. When he caught Brown's eye, the wideout turned up the sideline and tried to pull away from Steelers linebacker John Fiala. Just as he got a stride ahead, Bledsoe's perfectly timed lob floated into his waiting arms.

''I've played a lot of games with Troy and he's played a lot with me, and sometimes,'' Bledsoe said, ''we can do things like that.''

That leaves Belichick about a week to decide whether he wants experience or potential, savvy or speed, filet or a hearty meatloaf. It's a dilemma most coaches would love to have any week -- just not this one.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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