PITTSBURGH -- Drew Bledsoe never expected to be a backup at this stage of his career. The New England Patriots never expected he would be the one to take them back to the Super Bowl.
Bledsoe replaced an injured Tom Brady and led the Patriots to a 24-17 upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game Sunday.
It wasn't a perfect performance by the quarterback who lost his job to Brady after being injured Sept. 23 in the season's second game. And Bledsoe got plenty of help from Troy Brown, who returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown and was the middle man on a 60-yard return of a blocked field goal that put New England ahead 21-3 early in the third quarter.
The Patriots held on and advanced to the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, who beat Philadelphia 29-24 in the NFC championship.
Bledsoe, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who turns 30 next month, did what few backups could do in a championship game -- enter with the experience and arm of one of the better starters in the NFL.
''I've done this for a long time and at times at a pretty high level,'' said Bledsoe, who signed a 10-year, $103 million deal in the offseason. ''I felt confident coming out. I've been working hard and preparing for this exact scenario.''
The Steelers had their chances late in the game, but Kordell Stewart threw two interceptions in the final three minutes after Pittsburgh had cut into an 18-point deficit and trailed only by a touchdown.
Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis, who returned after being out eight weeks with a groin injury, carried nine times for just 8 yards, forcing Stewart to try to carry the team.
Bledsoe filled that role well for the Patriots late in the first half when Brady went down with an injured left leg. Four plays later he threw an 11-yard TD pass to David Patten to give the Patriots a 14-3 lead.
It was New England's only offensive touchdown of the game.
''You don't give a guy $100 million if you don't think he can be a championship quarterback,'' Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers said. ''He's a good quarterback. Nobody on our sideline was celebrating when Brady went out.''
In addition to the TD pass, Bledsoe put the Patriots in position for Adam Vinatieri's fourth-quarter field goal and allowed his team to hold the ball enough to avoid constant pressure late in the game as the Steelers tried to complete their comeback.
''You need a couple of quarterbacks in this league,'' said coach Bill Belichick, who added Brady could have gone back in the game. ''Sooner or later you might need them and I'm glad we had them today.''
Brady said he felt fine but didn't know yet if he could play next week.
New England, which went from 5-11 in 2000 to 11-5 this regular season, heads to its third Super Bowl, in New Orleans next Sunday. The Patriots also went in 1986 and 1997, and both times they lost in New Orleans -- 46-10 to the Chicago Bears, and 35-21 to the Green Bay Packers with Bledsoe at quarterback.
Bledsoe got a lot of help Sunday from some old-timers, like linebackers Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson, who shut down Pittsburgh's running backs to just 19 total yards.
Stewart was 24-of-42 for 255 yards but also threw three interceptions -- the last two by Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy that helped seal the Patriots' victory.
Stewart also threw three interceptions in the 1997 AFC championship loss to the Denver Broncos, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh now has lost three of four AFC championship games under coach Bill Cowher. All the losses were at home and all came with the Steelers favored. They were nine-point favorites in this game.
''The spread is the same as when Pittsburgh played 1-12 Detroit a few weeks ago,'' Belichick said when asked if he thought his team didn't get enough respect.
Bledsoe, expected to be traded after the season, was hospitalized with bleeding in his chest from a hit in the Week 2 game against the New York Jets.
When he was ready to return, the Patriots were 5-5, but Belichick decided to stick with Brady, a second-year player who had never started a game before this season.
Brady led the Patriots to seven straight victories before Sunday in what has become a charmed season for a team few people gave any chance of even making the playoffs.
The streak is up to eight after a sloppy game that included five replay reviews and several long conferences by officials.
The first score came after one of those little mistakes that coaches always preach can lose a game.
On fourth-and-6 from his own 13, Pittsburgh's Josh Miller punted the ball to the Patriots 23 -- 64 yards after it skittered behind Brown. But Pittsburgh's Troy Edwards was called for illegal procedure for stepping out of bounds and coming back in. So the Steelers had to rekick.
Cowher said the officials lined up the ball on the wrong hashmark when they respotted it after the penalty. He said that was one reason Brown punted the ball down the middle.
''In my mind that's inexcusable,'' Cowher said.
Brown took the ball back down the middle in the other direction for a 55-yard touchdown return that made it 7-0 with 3:42 left in the first period.
''I always said that special teams is crucial,'' said Brown, New England's leading receiver. ''If you're good at what you do and your team needs you on special teams, that's what you go out and do.''
Kris Brown's 30-yard field goal made it 7-3 early in the second quarter.
The game dragged until 2:42 was left in the half, and New England got the ball back at its own 30. On the third play, Brady passed to Troy Brown for a 28-yard gain to the Steelers 40 as safety Lee Flowers hit the quarterback, knocking him out of the game.
Bledsoe entered and found Patten for 15 and 10 yards before a 4-yard scramble. Then he hit Patten in the end zone with 58 seconds left to make it 14-3 at intermission. Bledsoe finished 10-of-21 for 102 yards.
Early in the second half, the Steelers moved from their own 32 to the New England 16, where they lined up for a field goal. But Brandon Mitchell blocked it, Troy Brown picked up the ball at the 40 and ran 11 yards before lateraling to Antwan Harris, who took it 49 yards for the score that made it 21-3.
''Antwan started calling my name and I looked over my shoulder and gave it to him,'' Brown said.
Bettis' 1-yard run at the end of a 79-yard, eight-play drive cut it to 21-10 with 5:11 left in the third quarter.
Then Troy Edwards' 28-yard punt return set up a 32-yard drive capped by Amos Zereoue's 11-yard touchdown run to bring Pittsburgh within four points.
Vinatieri's 44-yard field goal made it 24-17 three minutes into the fourth quarter.
Now it's on to the Super Bowl.
Quarterback controversy anyone?
''I'm feeling good, and that's all Coach wants us to say about it,'' Brady said.
''Coach'' will be heard from again.
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