Grogan’s Grade: Week 19 – AFC Championship: Patriots at Steelers

Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
January 29, 2002 at 8:11 am ET

PatsFans.com is proud to welcome former New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan back for another season. Grogan played in 149 games with the Patriots from 1975-1990, and was named to the Patriots Hall of Fame in 1995. Steve will join us each week to provide his insights on the progress of the Patriots during the 2001 football season, and will be on hand for the Pats 2002 playoff run as well!

R.R. Marshall: Steve, this incredible 2001 season for the Patriots continued on Sunday with a 24-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. What was your take on the big win?

Steve Grogan: When the Steelers scored two touchdowns in three minutes things got a little hairy there for awhile, but the Patriots hung on and were able to use some ball control to keep the ball away from the Steeler offense in that last quarter. I know not a lot of people thought the Patriots had much of a chance in this game, but the people that counted believed in themselves and they went out and played a great football game against the Steelers.

Pittsburgh had a very emotional game last week against the Baltimore Ravens and I think it was hard for them to get back up to that emotional level again. They just weren’t able to do it, while the Patriots took care of business. They played with more emotion and intensity and it showed on the field. That’s why they are the new AFC Champions and not the Steelers.

RRM: The Patriots got off to a rough start in this game and were flagged for an even dozen penalties by the end of the afternoon. Were they nervous or just over aggressive for the game?

SG: It seemed everyone on the Patriots offensive line except for Damien Woody seemed to have an illegal motion penalty called on them. They let the crowd get to them early on in the game, and I didn’t think that was a good omen. But they overcame that and dominated on defense, which allowed them to make some early mistakes that didn’t end up costing them. This was a horribly long game (close to four hours) because of all the replays, and the referees seemed to call this game a lot tighter than the previous playoff games. It wasn’t a lot of fun to watch from that aspect, but I was comfortably positioned on my living room couch for this one and the final result made it worth the wait!

RRM: A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have fashioned a more dramatic situation for the Patriots. You’ve been in that situation before, how tough was it for Drew Bledsoe to be thrust into that pressure situation and deliver the way he did?

SG: It had to be tough for him. The times where you are sitting and waiting on the sideline and you start to have doubts about yourself; you find yourself wondering if you’ll ever get to play again. I know all those thoughts had run through Drew Bledsoe’s mind. You could see his emotion at the end of the game coming out when he was standing in the huddle. It looked like his eyes were tearing up. You could tell that he had proved not only to the fans but also to himself that he could still play this game and play it well.

RRM: Bledsoe’s statistics were not overly impressive, as he completed only 10 of 21 for 102 yards but many of them came at crucial junctures of the game. What did you think of his performance in his first action since early September?

SG: I thought early on he was throwing the ball with a lot of confidence and making quick decisions, things he hadn’t done in his recent past. Late in the third quarter and into the fourth quarter he got a little conservative when they had the lead, but all in all he did everything they needed him to do. He really threw the ball extremely well for not having been on the field in a long time. The pass he threw to David Patten for the touchdown in the far corner of the endzone was a difficult throw, and not too many quarterbacks can come off the bench and deliver a throw like that.

RRM: Bledsoe has been criticized for the team not “responding” to him as they have done for Brady. They seemed to play well enough for him in this game?

SG: Player’s play for whoever the leaders are in the huddle, and if the guy is playing well they all love him. If he is not playing well there’s talk behind his back about getting the other guy in there. Drew was excited to get back on the field and he was showing some emotion pumping his teammates up in the huddle. I think they wanted to let him know that they were behind him. He’s always been such a laid-back guy and never showed much emotion but you saw some fire in his eyes. He knew how big the game was and how much was riding on it for him to play well, and it was nice to see him play with that kind of enthusiasm.

After the game everybody was saying they all knew Drew could do it and that they were all glad to have him back. Bledsoe has some close friends on this team, and he’s worked a lot with Troy Brown and David Patten so I think they were just glad to win and it didn’t really matter who was the quarterback on this day.

RRM: Aside from Kordell Stewart’s 34-yard scramble in the second quarter the Patriots limited the Steelers to a mere 24 yards rushing in the game. This had to be one of the key factors in the game?

SG: It definitely was. I thought Pittsburgh really didn’t try to run the ball as much as they should have and it cost them. I think when they fell behind they thought they had to get back into it in a hurry. Their running game had been the strength of their offense all season and they abandoned it. The Patriots game plan was to shut down the Steelers’ running game and make Kordell Stewart beat them with his arm, and it worked to perfection.

They did a really good job of keeping Stewart in the pocket. He had that one big run that you mentioned and a couple of times it looked like he was about to break another long one but somebody would get a hand on him and bring him down. You could see that the Patriots’ pass rushers were focused on not over-running him and it really paid off for them.

RRM: Troy Brown has provided the big play for this team all year so I guess it came as no surprise he would do it again in the AFC Championship game. Besides making eight catches for 121 yards to break one Patriot postseason record he also contributed on special teams, which I guess is all in a day’s work for him?

SG: Troy Brown is without a doubt the MVP of this football team. Nobody would have guessed he would have been the guy when the season started and you have to feel good for him. Special teams were the difference in this game for the Patriots. Brown returned that punt 55 yards for a score to get them on the board early, and then he came up with the ball after Brandon Mitchell had blocked a field goal attempt. Troy had the presence of mind to lateral the ball to Antwan Harris who brought it back the rest of the way, so Brown had a direct hand in two special teams’ touchdowns. The defense really had an outstanding game but the play of the special teams was the big difference in this game, and Troy Brown was the key member of that unit.

RRM: As expected the St. Louis Rams emerged as NFC champions and will be seeking their second Worlds Championship in three years. With their tremendous team speed this doesn’t appear to be a good matchup for New England?

SG: On paper this is not a good matchup for the Patriots. All indications are the Rams should win this game easily, but this is a Patriots defense that is playing with a lot of confidence right now and I don’t think they care about who they line up against. They are going to play good, solid football and that will give them a chance in this game.

I really feel that this game is going to be a battle. The Rams are a very impressive team with a lot of weapons. The Patriots are some 14-point underdogs and they will have their work cut out for them in trying to stop this offense. But this team seems to find a way every week to get it done, and I’m not writing them off now.

RRM: What do the Patriots have to do to pull off the upset?

SG: The Patriots are going to have to play a perfect game against the Rams if they are to win this game. I said before their first meeting during the regular season that they would have to play turnover free football and win the time of possession battle. New England turned the ball over three times in that game and the Rams had the ball for close to 35 minutes. That has to be reversed this time around.

The Patriots also have to get healthy in a hurry. Tom Brady is the most obvious injury but there are a lot of nicks and bruises this time of year so they have to get healthy. There a lot of no-name guys on this football team that just love to play football and do their jobs as best they can. A lot of times the team that plays together is better than the team with a lot of great individuals.

RRM: You mentioned the injury to Tom Brady. Does that revive the Patriots quarterback controversy on the eve of the Super Bowl?

SG: If Tom Brady is healthy he will be the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl for the Patriots. As long as he can get some practice time this week he should be fine. He’ll be really sore for a few days but they have a lot of techniques to get an ankle ready in a hurry, so he may be able to start practicing by Wednesday. They can also give him a cortisone shot to help with the swelling and pain if he needs it. But even if he’s the one who starts, it’s a comforting feeling to know you have a guy like Bledsoe ready to play if Brady does struggle.

RRM: Does Brady’s injury help the Patriots in that it forces the Rams to prepare for two quarterbacks, either Brady or Bledsoe?

SG: It definitely gives the Rams something else to think about and prepare for, and that’s always good. With only a week before the game there’s only so much you can prepare for, and anything that forces your opponent to spend valuable preparation time on is a plus for you. For that reason I don’t think Bill Belichick will reveal who his starting quarterback is going to be until he absolutely has to.

RRM: Does the fact that the two teams have already met once this season either help or hurt the Patriots chances in this game?

SG: I think it will help both teams. You’ve already game-planned for each other once and you know what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are, so it’s just a matter of fine tuning some things and hoping your players can execute.

RRM: Every year at this time all the talk is about the distractions that overcome players in their first trip to the Super Bowl. You’ve been there before, should this be a concern for this current Patriots squad?

SG: The one concern you have for a team who has a lot of players who haven’t had this experience before is that they get caught up in the hype that surrounds the game. You can get worried over how good your press conferences are instead of how good you’re going to play. Having only one week before the game will probably allow this team to avoid a lot of that and keep things a little more focused.

It’s an interesting situation because New Orleans is the best place to have the Super Bowl since everything is within walking distance of the stadium; like the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, etc. The players will have a good time for a couple of nights but by Wednesday there will be bedchecks and they’ll be ready to focus on the football game. Having been through it before myself I know some guys can become different people in this situation, but Belichick has been through this a couple of times as an assistant coach so he should be able to keep his team focused this week.

RRM: Who gets the Grogan game balls for this one?

SG: Troy Brown definitely gets one for his tremendous performance. You have to give one to Drew Bledsoe for coming off the bench and helping to lead his team to the victory. On defense Richard Seymour made a couple of key plays and helped the Patriots’ control the line of scrimmage. I also thought Otis Smith played well at corner even though he drew a couple of penalties. He was all over Pittsburgh’s primary receiving threat in Plaxico Burris and prevented him for turning in any big plays.

RRM: We were all wondering what kind of mother names their kid “Plaxico”? Never mind, what are Grogan’s grades for the great victory over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game?!?

SG: The defense definitely deserved an A. They had a good game plan but they executed it well. They took away the Steeler running game and forced Kordell Stewart to throw and he couldn’t beat them. The offense was a little bit up and down all day, but anytime you win a game of this magnitude the whole team merits an A.

This is a hard team to figure. You look at them and you say this is a team that isn’t good enough to be in the Super Bowl, but they play so well as a team with somebody different each week contributing key plays that I really think they have a good chance of winning this game. They’re not worried about who’s getting the glory, it’s about getting the glory together.

Grogan’s Grades for Week #19

Offense: A
Defense: A
Overall: A

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