Page 2 columnist
Editor's note: This column appears in the Sept. 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Years from now, Pittsburgh fans will call it, simply, "The Drive." And I was there. Section 322, Gillette Stadium. The night the Steelers would not be denied.
Seeds of this drama were planted in January. The Patriots had stormed off Heinz Field with the AFC title, but the home team was not impressed. Fresh off two late interceptions, a resolute Kordell Stewart offered, "I still feel we're the better team." Even after the Pats toppled the Rams, the Steelers maintained their superiority. And rightly so. Didn't they have more talent? Steelers receiver Hines Ward summed up the team's feelings: "We basically went to the Super Bowl last year."
The NFL must have nixed Bill Cowher's request to simulate this season's schedule on Madden 2003, because here were the mighty Steelers strutting into Foxboro for a season-opening rematch, a gridiron Roy Jones Jr. preparing to dismantle another mandatory cream puff. Safety Lee Flowers explained they were the AFC's "hunted" team, adding, "Ask the Patriots, they know it." Vegas certainly did, installing the visitors as three-point favorites. When the overmatched underdogs jumped ahead, their jittery fans braced for the real champs to retaliate.
We watched with trepidation as Kordell strolled onto the field, cooler than the other side of the pillow, needing to orchestrate a 66-yard drive in 175 seconds. No sweat. Forget his four turnovers, or the three other heaves that were nearly picked off, or Madden quipping, "He looks nervous." None of that mattered anymore.
As the two-minute warning loomed, the superstar came alive: Three passes, three completions, 27 yards. Like Elway in Cleveland, Stewart was rising to the challenge, directing yet another chapter for NFL Films' inevitable DVD, "Kordell's Greatest Moments."
Undaunted by two holding penalties and a second-and-30, the unflappable field general found Ward, then Amos Zereoue, on consecutive throws, finagling an improbable first down before the sage Cowher used a second timeout. Make no mistake: Stewart was slicing up Bill Belichick's vaunted D like Joan Rivers picking apart the necklines on that "Live from the Red Carpet" show on E! A remarkable one-handed grab by rookie sensation Antwaan Randle El put the Steelers 7 yards from glory. Thirty-nine ticks left. You could almost hear John Facenda's booming voiceover.
Time to burn the last timeout -- and for coach and QB to work some magic. The reeling Patriots never imagined their foes would resort to trickery, but with so much on the line, Cowher was leaving nothing on the table. His call was a brilliant "Double Toss": Stewart pitched back to Randle El, who flipped it forward to Zereoue for 5 extra-desperately needed-yards. From there, it was all Kordell. A sweet fake spike froze defenders as he sprinted toward the end zone. Pushed out at the 1, but believing he'd crossed the plane, the fiery leader had to be separated from the officials. You think this guy isn't a competitor?
Four seconds. Now, the Patriots called time. How could this be happening? Belichick needed to catch his breath-and find an answer. Meanwhile, Stewart and Cowher discussed their options. But really, there was only one. As Gene Hackman told Keanu in "The Replacements," "Winners always want the ball when the game's on the line." Kordell cradled the snap and hurdled over center, careening off LB Tedy Bruschi, then stretching over the goal line ... Touchdown, Steelers! The cream of the AFC had laid the smack down.
Final score: New England 30, Pittsburgh 14.
Yes, the Patriots had prevailed -- convincingly -- again, but, years from now, only The Drive will endure. For 66 yards and 175 glorious seconds, the invincible Steelers could not be stopped, not by New England's finest second-stringers, not by a suffocating prevent D, not by the roar of the 3,000 Pats fans still in attendance.
The road to the AFC championship still goes through the Steelers, a team destined to basically reach the Super Bowl for a second straight season. Some day, they may basically win one.Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.