New England confident with Brady or Bledsoe taking snaps on offense

Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2002

NEW ORLEANS -- Tom Brady is younger, nimbler and throws short, quick passes. Drew Bledsoe is experienced, stands taller in the pocket and throws deep.

''There are differences, but one similarity in our favor is they're both winners,'' New England Patriots wide receiver Charles Johnson said.

That may make Wednesday's planned announcement of who will start in the Super Bowl on Sunday less monumental than anticipated.

Players don't think they'd play much differently no matter who gets the call against the St. Louis Rams. Besides, both teams will have several days of practice knowing who will be quarterbacking the Patriots.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick was no more forthcoming Tuesday than he was a day earlier.

''There is nothing really new there,'' he said during media day, when players and head coaches from both teams met with reporters and broadcasters.

But Brady showed up without crutches or a limp.

Asked if he expected to play in the big game, he said, ''Yeah, darn right I am.''

He hasn't tested the strength of his injured left ankle, but said it isn't swollen and he'll put his full weight on it Wednesday at the Patriots' first practice.

But Bledsoe will get most of the practice plays if he's the starter.

''I want to play as bad as I ever wanted anything,'' he said. ''I mean, it's the Super Bowl. It's what you play for.''

Bledsoe, a nine-year veteran, and second-year pro Brady have remained friends through a turbulent season. Bledsoe suffered serious chest bleeding late in the second game and Brady took over in the 10-3 loss to the Jets.

The Patriots were 0-2 when Brady came in; they are 13-3 since then.

He seemed certain to play the rest of the season. Then he sprained his left ankle late in the first half of last Sunday's 24-17 win over Pittsburgh.

Bledsoe, playing for the first time in more than four months, threw an 11-yard touchdown pass that made the halftime score 14-3, then led a field-goal drive and helped take time off the clock with clutch third-down completions.

''I compare it to giving a starving man a little taste,'' he said.

On the touchdown, he lofted the ball to David Patten deep in the right corner of the end zone, a pass Brady rarely makes.

''We are in a unique situation,'' Johnson said. ''How many teams lose a quarterback in that magnitude of a game and have a guy come in and play at that caliber?''

With two quarterbacks who aren't threats to run, the Rams wouldn't have to make major adjustments.

''We played Atlanta earlier in the season and did not know if Chris Chandler or Michael Vick was going to be starting,'' Rams linebacker London Fletcher said.

Chandler is a pocket passer and Vick is a scrambler, but the Patriots quarterbacks play similar styles

''We don't change how we prepare for an upcoming game based on the starting quarterback,'' Fletcher said.

The Patriots blockers take the same approach.

''We don't have a Donovan McNabb back there. They're not going to go up the middle and run,'' guard Mike Compton said. ''But once they're back there, they're going to get the ball where they really need to.''

Bledsoe takes more time doing it, since Brady throws more slant and screen passes.

''When Drew is in there we know we have to hold up our blocks longer,'' center Damien Woody said.

Ultimately, Belichick's choice comes down to two attractive options. Bledsoe has been in three Pro Bowls and probably would have kept his job if he didn't get hurt. Brady has won the last eight games and showed his poise by bringing the Patriots back for a 16-13 overtime win over Oakland in a snowstorm at Foxboro Stadium in their playoff opener.

''Drew's done it before. Tom's been doing a great job all year,'' Compton said. ''So whoever's in there doesn't drop our chances.''

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